Ladies – It’s Time to Get Back in the Kitchen!

With only three women named in the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ and only 20% of the world’s chefs being female, Michelle Mellor of Chefs Jobs UK believes it is time the industry looked seriously at how to attract more female chefs into the professional hotel kitchen.

As a specialist chef recruiter for 25 years, I am well aware of the camaraderie within a kitchen and have absolutely no doubts that women have the exact same potential as men when it comes to reaching the highest level in a professional kitchen.

Further to that, I believe recruiting and retaining more women into the industry is where the skills shortage across all sectors can be addressed for the future. However, the reality is that it seems many female chefs often find that they are forced to sacrifice their career in order to have a full family life or vice-versa.

Chefs are undeniably some of the hardest working people in any profession. But the passion for the job also can come at a major detriment to work-life balance. A 50 to 60 hour week in a high pressure work environment is often not conducive to a full and fulfilling home life. When you are typically leaving for work at 8am and returning home after 10pm, it’s easy to understand why being a chef might be perceived as quite a macho profession.

But many well-renowned male chefs welcome a female presence within their kitchens. Michel Roux Jr has a two Michelin-starred kitchen, La Gavroche, which is run entirely by women. This is testament to the fact that a high end restaurant doesn’t need a typical male-based brigade in order to thrive. Quoted in The Telegraph earlier this year, Michel Roux Jr said: “There are still unfortunately some places that are living in the Dark Ages and think the kitchen is a male bastion. That’s totally wrong. Each kitchen is different and each restaurant is run in a different way, but there certainly should be more women in the kitchen.”

While only 4% of Chefs Jobs UK interim chefs are female, Oonagh Halferty is one example of a female chef with a great career. Speaking about the preconceptions within a professional kitchen, she says: “Being a great chef isn’t about what gender you are, it’s how well you handle the pressure in the kitchen. I began my cheffing career as a result of being a general manager for a number of bars. There seemed to be constant miscommunication between the front of house and the kitchen and it was very much a ‘them and us’ situation. These problems needed breaking down, so I began helping out in the kitchen and so discovered my true calling almost by default.

“Yes, the industry is still very male dominated but it is happening. It’s not going to change overnight but more and more professional female chefs are being recognised and becoming known for the great work they do.”

The hospitality industry offers plenty of opportunities for women chefs. We are extremely hopeful to see, at the very least, that 40% of the industry’s chefs will be female in the future. Having a greater balance across the profession will be a winning formula for everyone and more women back in the kitchen has got to be a good thing. But employers need to address the gender gap to ensure the industry continues to thrive with highly skilled, focused professionals – both men and women.

We believe a good recruitment strategy is key to improving work-life balance in the kitchen and so helping attract more women back into the profession.

Our top tips for employers are:

Plan Ahead
The key to a stable kitchen environment is planning ahead. Most kitchens are seasonal to some degree. So kitchens that look back at their previous busy times, then plan their recruitment ahead using a mixture of a permanent and interim staff enjoy a more organized and effective working environment. A pre-planned approach is far better than waiting until the kitchen gets too busy and putting in an emergency call to a recruitment agent to fill the gap quick.

Respect the Interim Chef
Interim chefs today are highly skilled. Working in a range of environments means they are highly adaptable and have a massive range of experience that can be put to good use. We place the very best interim Chefs at every level across the industry. The most successful outcomes are achieved by working closely with clients to match the right kind of interim chef to each kitchen’s individual needs. Respecting the skills they offer is the best way to get real value from interim staff.

Avoid the Split Shift
All chefs know that one of the greatest enemies of work-life balance is the split shift. In our experience, kitchens that use split shifts tend to have a higher staff turnover than those who can avoid them. But if employers work closely with their recruitment partner, there are ways even the smallest teams can keep split shifts to a minimum. It all depends on the individual kitchen, but again it comes down to smart use of permanent and temporary staff to achieve an even and sustainable working environment.

Develop a Relationship
Good chefs are in high demand. So if the kitchen they are working in is putting them under too much pressure they often face a stark choice between burnout or walk out – none of which is good for a hotel or restaurant looking to achieve consistent and renowned quality. Kitchens that seek to provide jobs with straight shifts, decent hours, flexibility to job share and two days off a week are more likely to be able to retain the talented chefs they need. Planning ahead and taking a strategic approach with a recruitment consultancy helps employers develop a relationship with them, which has the added benefit that they will be better placed to provide the best matched staff at short notice in emergencies too.

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