Chef Tom Kerridge put his hand in the fire at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Monday evening when quizzed about why there weren’t more top female chefs working in the UK.
Kerridge, head chef at two Michelin starred The Hand and Flowers and presenter of Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes, said he liked having women working with him in the kitchen because they release the tension in what can be a fraught environment.
He added, however, that it was precisely that “fire” that fuels the best restaurants.
“Girls in kitchens I like,” Kerridge said. “I like girls in kitchen a lot: it does bring that testosterone level down a little bit, it makes it not so aggressive. But then at the same point a lot of that fire in a chef’s belly you need, because you need them to force themselves to be ready for dinner service.
“That’s probably why there’s not so many female chefs,” he added, “but then one of the best cooks in this country is a girl called Lisa Allen who cooks up at Northcote Manor, which is a very busy Michelin star restaurant. She is a phenomenal, natural, beautiful, brilliant chef.
“They are out there; it’s just whether it’s the industry for them. I’m not sure, at that level,” he concluded.
Clare Smyth, head of Restaurant Gordon Ramsey in London, is the only woman to hold three Michelin stars in the UK – there are just four restaurants in Great Britain and Ireland with four star-status.
When asked by an audience member to expand on whether top restaurants needed more women, Kerridge said, “Testosterone is probably the wrong word, but [it’s about] that dynamic of getting things done, that ability to dig deep and be put under pressure. To go to the extreme where some kitchens go to – where it’s very uncomfortable, where at some point there is perhaps violence, where it perhaps feels threatening – that is taken away a lot by having girls in the kitchen.
“At The Hand and Flowers we have the radio on all day, we’ll have all Premier League football on, we’ll have cricket on,” he continued. “We try to make it an environment where people feel happy at work, and that’s the most important thing.
“And girls in a kitchen make blokes feel happy at work,” Kerridge said. “It’s a nicer environment, it makes it feel better, it’s a different level of conversation. If there are 16 blokes in a kitchen all talking about boobs or football, we need girls in the kitchen.”
Kerridge had earlier offered an insight as to why a kitchen environment can very quickly become over-heated: “The Hand and Flowers is a different beast; it’s a monster.
“We start very early in the morning, and we have two deadlines a day,” he said of his restaurant in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. “We have to be ready for 12pm, we have to be ready for 6.30pm. We’ll do 75 people at lunch time and another 75 at dinner time. Last dessert doesn’t go out until 5.30pm in the afternoon, and the first evening customers are in a quarter to six.
“It’s a machine, it’s a monster, and it’s full on. This doesn’t apply to just girls: we have loads of blokes who do a runner, because the pressure and intensity of cooking at that level to that amount of people is so intense. It’s overwhelming: if you don’t understand what’s going on it’s like a war zone almost.”