There's a rhythm that's hard to explain," says Asma Khan over a bhar of sweet, aromatic masala chai. "It's like everyone knows the words to the song and they all chip in at the same time. That's what it is to be in an all-female kitchen."
Khan would know. When you search Google for 'all-female kitchens in London', Darjeeling Express, Khan's brightly lit Indian restaurant on the third floor of Soho's Kingly Court, is the first hit. None of its chefs, including Khan, have prior culinary training, and all of them are women.
In the year since it opened, Darjeeling Express has gained a bit of a cult following, and not just for the soul-soothing plates of delicious chana chaat and prawn malaikari I watch being plated up behind the pass, either. What's garnered the most attention is Khan's intelligent and compassionate approach to women in the industry. Well, that and events in November on social media, when the Michelin Guide came under fire for praising the all-female team for "coping effortlessly with the demands" of a busy service. Khan didn't take this as an insult (citing that Michelin's comments were probably taken out of context), but judging by the reaction on Twitter and the stream of articles that followed, most of London's food and drink scene did so on her behalf.
With tedious predictability, last year's uproar was just one among many ongoing, complex conversations about the role and categorisation of gender in the restaurant community, both in London and beyond. Institutions like the Michelin Guide have a historically poor record of recognising great female chefs for just being, well, chefs. And let's not forget the World's 50 Best's habit of first othering women by awarding them the controversial title of World's Best Female Chef, then cutting these same 'winners' off from their peers by failing to include their restaurants in the complete list. That's been the case for each of the last four chefs to win the award: Core's Clare Smyth (2018), Ana Ros of Hiša Franko (2017), Atelier Crenn's Dominique Crenn (in 2016) and Hélène Darroze of Hélène Darroze at The Connaught and Restaurant Hélène Darroze (2015).
High-profile examples like these highlight the struggles women face when it comes to exposure, opportunity and rightful recognition in this male-dominated industry, and that's not even including the inevitable financial gains that accompany all that. It's symptomatic of a wider culture of misogyny; one where, behind the scenes, women are faced with constant, everyday sexism, too. The mere existence of Polka Pants, producers of stylish, form-friendly chef's pants for women, indicates there are things both big and small that affect women working in a sector that, in 2017, was recognised as Britain's fourth biggest employer. But the challenges go far beyond the uncomfortable (no pun intended) symbolism of having to put up with a uniform designed for an entirely different body shape.
there are things both big and small that affect women working in Britain's fourth biggest employment industry
As it turns out, some of the most effective, innovative and inspiring solutions to these problems are coming from women working with women to bring about change. From all-female hospitality networks to social enterprises supporting refugees, these collectives – including Darjeeling Express and others like them – are using food and drink to empower other women, and challenging the status quo while they're doing it.
One of these is Luminary Bakery, an all-female social enterprise and café in Stoke Newington, which is simultaneously addressing a number of issues that affect women in the food and drink industry – not least those who need to prioritise family. "A lot of women that we work with have kids and trying to get a job when you can't work certain hours is really difficult," says head baker Rachel Stonehouse. "Lots of employers are really inflexible."
Needless to say, this isn't the case at Luminary. "Some of our team do 9.30am to 4.30pm because they have to drop their kids off at nursery," explains Stonehouse. It's not a bread bread bakery, which means the hours are a bit more flexible. It's a difficult pattern to work around but the small team – which only a couple of weeks ago was pulling together an order of more than 6,000 units in the café's tiny open kitchen for retail giant Amazon – somehow make it work.
When I visit, the 'heat' isn't on in the kitchen. Outside is a whole other story; it's barely 10am and already the sun is fierce. As we chat, it falls through the big glass windows, casting the shadow of the text on a window sticker across our table: "We can't be brave in the big world without at least one small safe space to work through our fears and falls."
It's poignant, given Luminary's mission. Born out of Kahaila, a charity and coffee shop with a conscience, the bakery was founded by Alice Williams in 2014. It works to tackle the cycles of poverty by giving women from disadvantaged backgrounds the transferable skills to succeed. These women may have a record, it might be that they don't have a permanent address, or they may have experienced sexual exploitation. A lot of them have experienced domestic violence, broken relationships or some form of social isolation along the way, but Luminary's six-month training programme gives them a much needed all-female supportive place – that 'one small safe space' – where, as Stonehouse explains, "They can come and be themselves and don't have to be fearful of other stuff."
Raising women up
The freedom to 'just be yourself' seems to be a common theme coursing through not just Luminary, but other all-female collectives, too.
"There's something special that happens when you have just women around the table," says Benjamina Ebuehi, one of Luminary Bakery's official ambassadors, and co-founder of the pop-up supper club The Sister Table, which she runs with her twin sister Bonita.
The Sister Table isn't a social enterprise; rather, it's a sociable space created for women, by women. What drives it is the Ebuehis' desire to create "a real sense of community", where women can meet and bond with other like-minded women over great food and drink.
"There's just that comfort, that shared experience, that ability to completely be yourself," explains Ebuehi, referring to how empowering it is to exist in these kinds of spaces. For her, part of the joy in working with Luminary and running a supper club for women is the opportunity to use her "skills to serve and benefit others."
This determination to raise others up is one which she shares with Khan: "If you are in a position of power as a woman, you absolutely have a duty of care to lift at least another few women up," says Khan, back at Darjeeling Express. We speak in the hours snatched between afternoon and evening service. I've nipped into the restaurant to steal a moment or two of her time – not that Khan has a lot of it going spare: in May, she opened Calcutta Canteen, a second site focusing on West Bengali street-food in Fulham Market Halls; this summer she's putting the finishing touches to a cookbook she's been working on for two years; and in between all that, she's about to start work on a huge project we're not yet allowed to talk about.
When I drop by, the restaurant is technically closed, but in the middle of the floor a group of teenage girls are gathered around a table, finishing off their lunch. No one tries to rush them along. Behind them Khan's team are stretched out on the benches, shoes off, phones in hand, calling their families in Pakistan and beyond. They're waiting for the evening shift to roll around.
This is the "golden hour", Asma tells me. The time when her staff can clock off for a nap, as these women are doing now, or when her team can return home and check in with their children. Two of her main chefs are pregnant. They'll come for the late shift in half an hour or so to take over evening service. By then, most of the heavy lifting and prep has already been taken care of.
It's a system that works and one Khan has deliberately put in place, but it's not one you'd necessarily come across in other establishments. In the hospitality industry, shift work is notoriously ill-suited to those trying to juggle a career while simultaneously raising children. Those with kids have to put one stint in at work and then another at home and you can't help but wonder how many more women we'd see racing to the top if better childcare support was built into these workplaces.
A celebration of skills
As I speak to more and more women like Khan, Stonehouse and Ebuehi, I learn that it's not about cutting men out of the picture, but rather creating a level playing field by giving women the tools (or the time and flexibility) to flourish in the traditionally male-dominated setting of a professional kitchen.
Niki Kopcke has built her roaming restaurant and social enterprise Mazi Mas off the back of this idea. "Women are responsible for raising and feeding all of us, but that work is never quantified because it occurs in the home," says Kopcke. "I was interested in assigning an actual financial value to that work that women do, and celebrating them for it."
And that's exactly what she has done. For five and a half years Mazi Mas has employed and trained refugee women, acting as an incubator programme for those wanting to open their own food businesses. Recently, it has taken on a stall at Old Spitalfields Market focusing on Persian cuisine.
It's not a charity, but a business with a social conscience that invests all its profits back into the training programmes and people that keep it going. These are the people Kopcke wants to champion the most: "We have women who have spent their lives developing these incredible skills," she tells me. "These skills that have enabled food cultures to expand and sustain through generations, but you don't see these women stepping out on their own and opening places. What you see more often is male chefs going and learning from the mama figure, the guru, then making money off of it. That really pisses me off."
It's an unfortunate reality for female chefs that their skills aren't always valued as highly as their male counterparts. Ravneet Gill – a chef at Highbury Corner's grill restaurant Black Axe Mangal and founder of chefs' collective Counter Talk – describes how there have been times in the past when she's walked into a kitchen only to be met with noticeably less respect than a man. Despite being a qualified pastry chef, whose CV is decorated with the names of some of London's most influential restaurants and bakeries, "people often think that I'm there for the PR or something other than cooking," she tells me.
I first meet Gill behind the pass at June's Taste of London festival. She's showing me how to prep the mango and passionfruit cheesecake she's created for all-female hospitality collective Ladies of Restaurants. At Taste, LOR was one of the few stalls serving food that didn't represent a restaurant. Despite this, its lamb in betel leaf dish, designed by Anaïs van Manen, co-founder of the soon-to-launch Bastarda at Hackney Wick's Giant Steps, managed to top the offerings of even Michelin-starred restaurants, going on to win the festival's coveted 'Best in Taste' award.
it's about creating a level playing field, not cutting men out of the picture
Heading up the gang of volunteers is Natalia Ribbe, co-founder of LOR, who, alongside Libby Andrews, created the network to use food, drink and social spaces to connect with other women and raise them up towards success. "Ladies of Restaurants was set up out of a want and need to support the incredible community of women working in hospitality," Ribbe later tells me.
"When you're growing up or just working in kitchens, on the floor, or as a sommelier – no matter where – all you see are men. You don't see what you can be, because there is nobody to look up to or model yourself after."
For Ribbe and Andrews it's about encouraging the younger generation and creating role models for those already working in the industry. "We want to bring women to the forefront and say, 'Hey, look what I'm doing,' for other women to see."
It's important work, not least when the London food scene, as Gill explains, has been dominated by the same kind of chef for so long. "All the images I was seeing on social media were all male, and a certain type of male: middle-class and white. That was the standard that was being promoted and pushed and I found it frustrating."
On the other hand, she saw incredible female chefs doing great things but failing to get the same coverage. When they do, Gill notes, it's instead "dominated by female food bloggers, food stylists and food writers, but you don't get female chefs."
Gill is currently trying to turn this around. Through Counter Talk, she has joined Mayor of London Sadiq Khan's #BehindEveryCity campaign, which is working to raise awareness about the gender pay-gap. Her part aims to clear out the stereotype of the mumsy, nurturing home cook by championing lesser-known female chefs in London. It's hoped that by increasing their presence, these women will just become a normal everyday reality and in doing so, Gill's project will bring a boost to the industry; one which already generates around £38bn for the economy.
Though Gill, Ladies of Restaurants and many others like them are working tirelessly to affect change throughout the industry, the wider picture is of an industry where problematic attitudes persist.
Earlier this year I attended an event at South Kensington restaurant Bibendum called 'An Evening of Share Value', where a panel discussion centred around the theme 'the difference she makes'. The panelists – male and female – spoke about what women bring to the restaurant industry ("a sense of maturity" or authority: "you don't want to get told off by a woman") and what they need to do to succeed ("it's all about the results… forget that you're a woman and just do what you need to do"). Claude Bosi, the chef whose name is currently above the door at Bibendum, spoke of his dream to have a female head chef one day.
But when the questions came in from the floor, the tone took a noticeable shift. The panel was invited to give their opinion on the rise of all-female kitchens such as Darjeeling Express. Here, Bosi jumped in: with a quick "I don't know," he went on to suggest that, "maybe the women should come into the men's kitchen and take the risk".
I wasn't sure what that meant – and neither is Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express when I mention it to her. "What is a men's kitchen?" she asks. "I would love to know."
we don't see what we can be because there's no one to look up to
But rather than trying to read into a quick-fire, misplaced response, perhaps it's time instead to address the "risk" these women take on in forging their own spaces in an industry dominated from the top down by certain restaurateurs, chefs and investors – ones who use their positions of power to deliberately, or inadvertently, create a hostile environment in which to work – and by a handful of judges, food writers and editors who use coded, critical language to devalue their skills or write them out of the narrative all together.
These collectives – especially those which double as social enterprises – operate on a complex business model which, for more reasons than one, can be difficult to operate. As Kopcke of Mazi Mas points out, female-focused enterprises are "particularly expensive businesses to run… It requires a lot of auxiliary support that you don't see."
At the same time, as Fi O'Brien – co-founder of South West England-based Girls Who Grind Coffee, an all-female roastery – tells me, there are still a lot of "backwards-thinking hurdles" women have to overcome when setting up businesses.
These women and others are constantly having to navigate complex social systems. Bosi's commentary suggests they're somehow shying away from all that by creating female-forward organisations. In reality these all-female collectives aren't removing themselves from the conversation surrounding what makes a 'great' chef, baker or restaurateur by creating their own spaces; rather, they're building a platform, which allows for their skills to be recognised and their voices to be heard in a world that seems determined to silence or ignore them.
Although attitudes like these are slowly changing, they undoubtedly still exist within the industry. Until we start getting better at recognising and calling them out, it's only right that we continue, as O'Brien puts it, "to celebrate and share the stories of those that are rarely told."