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The Rise of the Female Michelin Star Chef

By Laura Walkinshaw

kitchen_Achieving three Michelin star status is the ultimate accolade fine dining chefs work towards. But while there are more than a hundred male chefs worldwide with the prestigious three stars, just six women hold the accolade.

The number of female chefs with Michelin stars is continuing to rise, however, with stars dished out to restaurants with women at the helm in Germany, France, San Francisco and the UK in the most recent Michelin guides. Elite Traveler speaks to female chefs at the top of their game and finds out how they managed to succeed in a male-dominated environment.

The status of the top chef has skyrocketed in the past decade, with food bibles such as the Michelin restaurant guide highlighting the best of the culinary world – and recognizing those who make it what it is.

But in the midst of cooking legends from Alain Ducasse to the Roux brothers, one has to ask: where are all the women?

Research shows that 4.7% of chefs and head cooks in the US are female, while in the UK women make up just under 20% of chefs. The statistic is thought to be even lower when it comes to fine dining restaurants.

TIME magazine’s “Gods of Food” feature, published in November, was met with fierce criticism when just three – out of 15 – places were given to women, none of whom were chefs (coffee grower Aida Batlle made the list, along with Amrita Patel, chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board in India, and Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva).

But as the editor of The Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland, Rebecca Burr, puts it, female chefs are forming an important part of the background.

And each year, more and more women are emerging at the helm of fine restaurants all over the world. Four female chefs were awarded a Michelin star in Germany in the 2014 restaurant guide, while in 2013 Douce Steiner of Hirschen restaurant in Sulzburg became the first female chef in the country to be awarded a second star.

In San Francisco, State Bird Provisions – run by Nicole Krasinski and her husband Stuart Brioza – won a Michelin star in the 2014 guide, while four female chefs were awarded their first star in the 2014 French edition.

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As far as notable female chefs go, Clare Smyth is a name that comes up time and time again. In 2007 she joined an elite – and very small – group of female chefs when she gained her third Michelin star. Today, she is still the only female chef in the UK to hold three stars, and one of just six females in the world with the prestigious accolade.

The Gordon Ramsay protégé, who has previously described restaurant kitchens as testosterone-driven, admits that she felt like she had more to prove when she first started out at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay because she was a woman.

“I didn’t want anyone to look at me as a female chef and think, ‘She’s weaker’, or ‘she’s tired’ or ‘you cut yourself’,” she says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself never to show weakness which I probably didn’t have to do because people weren’t judging me like that.

“I used to find when I was younger, male chefs would be sick, they’d cut themselves or be tired, and I would never admit any of those things. I still wouldn’t. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to show any signs of weakness. I didn’t want it to be about that at all, I just wanted it to be about the work.”

After six years as head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Smyth has gained considerable respect in the industry, with Burr describing her as running a “very, very serious kitchen”.

“She has maintained the three stars in her own right and that has evolved ever since she took over,” she adds. “We think of it as her restaurant.”

But Burr, who has been the editor of the Great Britain & Ireland guide since 2010 and trained as a chef herself, says that the grueling demands on a chef make it a challenging profession.

“It’s hard work and I think these ladies would be the first to say that,” she says. “I think really the hospitality industry is a whole different ballgame. You can’t just say unsocial hours, it’s beyond that.”

The pressure on women to juggle work and home life is nothing new, and French chef Hélène Darroze is the first to admit the challenges faced when holding down a career as demanding as being a head chef when you’re a mother.

“It’s very difficult for a woman to do this kind of job and to be in a kitchen,” the two Michelin star chef says. “As I used to say, I am not here in the evening to read the stories to my girls and I work a lot. Yesterday I started to work at 9 and I finished at 11, so I just had half an hour to be with them.

“Even if the mentalities change, it’s still difficult. You have a choice to make at one stage of your life. It’s not easy to make this choice.”

But the mother-of-two, who worked in Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV restaurant and now has restaurants in three countries, says that being a woman never stopped her becoming a successful chef.

“I was the only woman in the kitchen at that time but, you know, when you are just honest [and say], ok I am a woman, if I need help, I can ask for help,” she says. “To be honest [the male chefs] were really nice with me and now most of them are friends. It was a really fun time. I never had a problem because I was a woman.”

Darroze says that being true to yourself is also key to thriving in a male-dominated kitchen. “Never forget that you are a woman and don’t try to be a man because you are a woman and be proud of that.”

Smyth adds that while a testosterone-driven kitchen may react differently to a new female chef compared with a male – “initially I felt it was a case of ‘oh there’s a young girl’,” she says – they quickly become part of and gain respect from the rest of the team.

“Within the first few weeks you prove yourself to be a valuable member of the team and everyone wants good people on their team,” she says.

With the more and more head female chefs – and even more already working behind the scenes (Le Gavroche has two female sous chefs in addition to head chef Rachel Humphries) – the future is looking bright for women looking to embark on a culinary career.

As Burr concludes: “Female chefs have a different touch and we need to see more of them.”

Watch our interviews with Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze.

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