• Women and non-binary people are sharing their stories about working in commercial kitchens. (Getty Images )Source: Getty Images
Four Australian women share their stories about working within traditionally male-dominated restaurant kitchens.
Talia Slonim

8 Mar 2021 - 12:48 PM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2021 - 3:48 PM

In recent years, the workplace culture of the hospitality industry has received a pretty bad rap. It‘s rife with stories about Gordon Ramsay-like chefs who are fuelled by fiery tempers and restaurant kitchens that are hyper-masculine and sexist.

But many chefs are challenging these perceptions and argue that the culture has already progressed well past these stereotypes. They suggest women and non-binary chefs are excelling more than ever before.

SBS Food interviews four prominent chefs to find out whether the 'male ego in the kitchen' actually exists, how they choose to lead their kitchens, and their advice for those who want to make it in hospitality.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Eileen Horsnell

Eileen Horsnell is head chef at the iconic Napier Quarter in Melbourne. She's previously headed the kitchen at Brisbane café-bistro Pearl and was part of the team at Melbourne's Lûmé.

It's been said that the hospitality industry is very male dominated. Do you think this culture is changing?

We are definitely seeing much more equality in our restaurants and kitchens. The culture is changing. I think the focus in kitchens now is more about product knowledge, building relationships with your farmers and educating staff.

We are breaking down the idea that you have to work 12-hour days and eat little food, have no emotions and be tough (whatever that means).

Instead we focus on the growth of the individual to gain the best results in our restaurants. 

Have you experienced sexism in your industry?

I started cooking in 2001 and the culture in kitchens at that time was very different. I certainly experienced sexism. I think this comes from their privilege, ego and insecurity.

"I aim to promote and uplift all of my staff in the kitchen regardless of their gender."

I was bullied and told I'd never have what it takes. Although this probably happens to all genders in the kitchen, this experience only made me want to be a part of changing this egotistical culture.

What kind of culture do you try to create in your kitchen?

I aim to promote and uplift all of my staff in the kitchen regardless of their gender. Hyper-masculine culture does not exist in my kitchen. It's not tolerated as we are all equal.

I like to teach and lead in a way that shows people that you gain respect and camaraderie through nurturing staff.

Palisa Anderson

Anderson is the second-generation restauranteur of Chat Thai. She's also a farmer at Boon Luck Farm near Byron Bay and stars in SBS Food's Palison Anderson's Water Heart Food program.

Do you think the hospitality industry is male dominated?

I actually feel that there is a more even footing for men and women in hospitality than other industries. Women have always run food businesses, they just may have never been given the spotlight. Times are certainly changing, and my hope is that we don't just limit the attention in equality to gender.

I hope businesses whose owners are not fluent English speakers get a look in, too. It's not enough to just think about gender equality anymore; it's great to be politically correct but it's time the Australian food scene embraces all sorts of food businesses run by all sorts of people.

Palisa Anderson

Do you have any personal career goals?

I hope one day for our business to only use organic or naturally raised produce.

Sadly we are not there yet due to many factors, one being the price point we have to stay at to be commercially viable and competitive in the market, and also due to consumers' perception that ethnic food (non-European) has to be cheap.

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Özge Kalvo

Born in Istanbul, Kalvo began her work in Australia at Sydney's Anason and then moved to Efendy. Today, she works at Ester.

Do you try to uplift other women in hospitality?

I don't think it's necessary now to uplift or encourage women to choose hospitality, because they are already very strong, brave and present.

Sometimes there are physical limits of being a woman, and I can only suggest not to hide behind those physical limitations. For instance, I'm the shortest person in the kitchen and the kitchen is not designed for me. It's not ideal, but milk crates are my best friend, even during service. There's always a way. Also, this may sound basic but don't be scared to stand up for yourself.

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Do you have any personal role models or mentors?

I have always worked in women-dominated kitchens back in Istanbul and I learned a lot from them. Didem Senol, the owner and executive chef of Gram in Istanbul showed me how to handle more than three restaurants and having two kids at the same time.

The head chef, Esra Acar Koc, showed me how to stay strong and have fun in the kitchen. Jacqui Challinor, head chef of Nomad, showed me that women can be powerful figures in this industry. I am grateful to work with every one of them. 

Maria Kabal

Estonian born chef Kabal previously worked in London's Caravan before becoming Head Chef at Melbourne's Anada. She's now moved to become head chef at Tokar Estate Winery.

Do you experience sexism in hospitality?

The type of sexism I encounter now is more subtle. When I was younger it was blunt and straightforward, and you could point your finger at it. But now that I am in a senior position, it's not so easy to blatantly sexually harass me at the work place. It comes in the form of a subtle, hidden disrespect instead. 

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How do you try to promote the women in your kitchen?

I encourage other women to stand up for themselves when they feel something isn't right and to speak their mind. I do try to welcome and nurture new entrants to the industry but this job isn't for everyone.

I am still learning how to counter some toxic hyper-masculinity in a positive and productive manner that actually spurs change. 

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