In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Gastronauts Asia hosted for the 2nd time the culinary forum ‘Women in Gastronomy’ (WIG) at the Banyan Tree Bangkok and invited renowned female chefs from Thailand.
The full-day symposium included a panel discussion about the ‘Cultural Challenges for Female Chefs’, followed by a unique “Thai Street Food” lunch from Bangkok’s leading female chefs and restaurants. The programme continued after the mouthwatering lunch with a new feature “Women in Wine”. As part of the 150 years anniversary and celebration of diplomatic relations and friendship between Thailand and Italy, WIG offered a wine talk and tasting and invited female representatives from four top Italian wineries. The event united successfully top female chefs and female representatives from the food and beverage scene. The panel discussion was moderated by Michelin Star Italian chef Christina Bowerman, who directly addressed a thought-provoking question to the six panellists “Why are female chefs still under-represented in the world and especially in Haute Cuisine?”
It is all about gender roles. For centuries and until now people around the world say: “The women’s place is in the kitchen.” Surprisingly, it seems only to count for private household kitchens. In public and professional restaurant kitchens mostly, men are representing high class cooking and “Haute Cuisine” worldwide. Cooking in private households was traditionally a women’s area and their work in this environment was neither visible nor economically valued. Cooking at home was minimised to the simple act of nurturing a family. Whereas cooking in public and in restaurants from the beginning was considered as an act of expressing creativity, a culture and as well a country. The workplace kitchen was differentiated between “public and private”, “amateur and professional”, and “feminine and masculine” cooking. So, when men started performing cooking in public and in professional restaurant kitchens, they were raised up to the status of chefs, creators and “food ambassadors of the country”. Women who want to join this level, have to face until today many challenges and obstacles in a space which still seems to be a masculine territory. Some of the obstacles have been discussed on the panel.
“Women are physically not strong enough for this job. They cannot lift as heavy as men.”
This or similar statements many female chefs have heard in the beginning of their working career. On many occasions it is used as an argument to why women are not a good fit in professional kitchens because they are physically disadvantaged to their male colleagues. When women start their career in restaurant kitchens, they need to demonstrate their strength and ability to at least equal their male peer’s.
Chef Fae from ‘Front Room’ experienced it by herself during her training time in Denmark under the guidance of a Michelin Chef. Her boss was convinced that due to her tiny appearance she is more a burden than a help in the kitchen. She had to demonstrate that she can handle this demanding and stressful environment and proved him that women have great endurance and can work for many hours tirelessly. The restaurant’s kitchen is a very tough and competitive surrounding, especially in Michelin-starred restaurants. All panellists agreed that to survive in this environment, it needs a lot more than big biceps. It requires many different skills and amongst others: a very good sense of flavours, technical skills, leadership skills, endurance, consistency, creativity, patience, determination and a high amount of resilience.
Lack of respect
Another challenge female chefs have to face is lack of respect in the professional ‘male dominated’ kitchen environment. To manage it, some adapted an authoritarian masculine style of leadership in the kitchen. Chef Noor from Blue Elephant was one who admitted that to achieve respect in the kitchen it helps to show a strong personality and be bossy at times. However, there were also women chefs who succeeded while keeping the feminine style. Another way out of this dilemma is through self-employment like Chef Pam from The Table. She invites her guests to fine dining at her home. Another strategy as a female chef to escape male dominance in the kitchen is by surrounding yourself only with other female chefs or helpers.
How do you balance family life and work?
Honestly, I find this question bizarre and I am still surprised that it always comes up whenever women aim for a career out of the house. A family consists of a father, mother and one or more children. Why is this question never a concern when interviewing male chefs (father) about their work-life balance? This question alone implies the female chef (mother) a bad feeling like she is not fulfilling her duties as a mother. A woman is not only a mother. She has many other roles to satisfy as a wife, daughter, sister, friend, etc. and wants to excellence in all of her roles. Although more women are entering the professional workplace kitchen and get recognition, they still have a tough time meeting the expected gender roles from the society and workplace requirements. The workplace kitchen requires a high level of personal investment. Family-life is still and sadly a major barrier and discrimination factor.
That is why many female chefs in their younger years won’t make it to the top in comparison to their male colleagues. Later when the kids are grown up, female chefs finally get attention and recognition like in the case of Chef Thip from Saffron. Chef Noor from Blue Elephant integrated her daughter in her daily job and cooking business from the beginning. The passion for cooking was inherited to her daughter. Till now both are cooking together as a team at Blue Elephant Bangkok. One of the last questions the panellists were asked was “Who inspired you the most in your life?” In unison, all six panellists responded: their mothers. All these mothers nurtured and showed their love through preparing food for the family. Cooking for the family is a beautiful way to show your love and care for the loved ones. Only the mother of Chef Som from Karmakamet Dinner was according to her opinion, not a gifted cook. For that reason, Chef Som started her cooking career at an early age unwantedly but fortunately, it turned out later to be her passion.
After an extraordinary Street Food lunch from ten famous Bangkok restaurants and their female chefs the event finished with a wine talk and wine tasting. A tasty selection of red, white and sparkling wines from famous wine areas in Italy were offered. The four female wine experts showed presentations and explained in detail about the history of the wineries, the wines itself, and their uniqueness. All in all, the 2nd culinary forum was a successful event that showcased successful women in the food and beverage sector.