The Women’s Institute, Britain’s grand preservers of high quality home cooking and the UK’s largest voluntary women’s organisation, is celebrating its centenary this year.
BBC2’s food competition Great British Menu is marking the WI occasion with a grand banquet, put together by the some of best and most ambitious chefs in the country.
It seems a programme pairing made in heaven: jam, Jerusalem artichokes and more ‘modern takes’ on Victoria sponge than you can squeeze onto a deconstructed cake stand. Weeks of culinary repartee ending in one great big Michelin-starred fête.
And yet for some the celebration has left a sour taste: for a show that’s meant to hail the empowering influence of the WI, there are depressingly few women chefs actually cooking for the judges.
Four out of the original 24 chefs in the heats were women. Just one woman, Scottish chef Jak O’Donnell, made it through to the final eight. On Friday we will see whether any of her dishes make it to the banquet.
Prue Leith, one of the judges on Great British Menu, is the perfect person to ask why the show has not featured more women chefs. Her answer says so much about the modern culinary industry, and what can be done to get more women reaching the top table of the UK restaurant scene.
“The whole fact of women chefs concern me a lot,” she tells RadioTimes.com at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “People often ask me why there are not more women at the top of the culinary tree. And actually it’s quite easy once you think about it.
“All these guys on Great British Menu either have a Michelin Star or are on their way to getting them. So that’s the sort of level you are looking at. Why are there so few women at that level, with Michelin Stars?
“If you look at the women who do have Michelin Stars, they either own their own business, or they aren’t married – like Angela Hartnett – or they are married but have no children, or their husbands work with them,” she adds.
“But if you’re a Michelin-starred chef and you’re a man, the chances are your wife is at home looking after the children at night. If you don’t work at night, you don’t get a Michelin Star. You don’t get a Michelin Star for lunch or for tea or for having the best bakery in the world. You have to be able to work at night.”
Only a man could think naming a dish "game old birds" with reference to calendar girls is honouring women/the WI #greatbritishmenu— Princess Penelope (@PrincessPenelo3) September 14, 2015
This, Leith believes, is the major sticking point in the industry. Not macho working environments or outdated ideas about who’s tough enough to get through a tense service. Awkward hours and a traditional disinclination for men to run the home with WI-style efficiency is still limiting the number of women who can become top chefs.
“Women have to choose in the end,” Leith says. “Because men will not stay at home and look after the children, they won’t give that much support, so women can’t go that way. They have to actually choose: ‘right, my career is more important to me than home life’. And that’s a hard thing, because men don’t have to make that choice.
“And so we struggle to get women chefs on the programme. I’m always pushing the producers harder for women chefs. I should think we’ve tapped the top women chefs pretty well, unless you could go to the great women working in the catering businesses or some lunchtime-only situation.”
No longer a man’s world
Occasionally the chefs on Great British Menu help their rivals out, pulling together to get a dish to the pass. At other points however, the show ramps up to the kitchen competitiveness, each (invariably male) pro sniping and testing the other as they cook. It’s play-acting really, a bit of banter for the cameras. But in professional kitchens, is there not still a sense that only men can handle it?
“It’s all baloney,” Leith says, although that’s only because the industry has cleaned up its act. “The way kitchens used to be was horrific. They were worse than the Army, there were terrible initiation ceremonies. In fact I’ve got this in my trilogy [Leith is also a successful fiction author]: there’s a scene in the Savoy which is true. A young lad is put into a big, greasy stockpot, forced to sit down in it, and then they pretend to turn the gas on.
“There’s another scene where a girl gets locked in the fridge. She doesn’t know she can get out, but to be locked in a walk-in freezer is very frightening. Awful initiation stuff used to go on,” she explains.
“The idea was you get through it and you were one of us. Boys hate it as much as girls do, but when they’re part of the team they then do it to the next generation.”
That initiation culture is much less common now she believes, dying back along with the kind of testosterone generation that produced Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White.
“The truth is with a lot of the television macho stuff, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White used to always behave very badly on camera. And they did, when they were young, they both behaved quite badly. They grew up.
“Partly it was, if you’re young and you’re not used to being the boss, and you suddenly find yourself in charge of a big brigade – it’s like teachers who shout at the children the whole time – It’s usually because they haven’t got the control and the authority to rule quietly.”
Restaurants too have grown up, thanks to the example of Michelin-starred chefs like Angela Hartnett, not to mention last year’s Great British Menu winner Emily Watkins.
The tide is changing – but only for those women pursue their ambition in the odd hours a kitchen demands.
“If you own your own restaurant you have to work at night,” Leith concludes. “And all of our chefs are chefs-patron [head chefs and business owners]. So basically this is a woman blaming the men. I’m saying, ‘Come on guys, if you were prepared to babysit, then women could get on more.’”
Great British Menu continues at 7pm on BBC2