Samui Wining & Dining
It’s a Man’s World

The world’s best food comes out of kitchens run by men – doesn’t it?


7Men have always reigned supreme in restaurant kitchens. And until relatively recently very few people could name a professional female chef in charge of a top-class restaurant that had a Michelin star or similar. Forget about Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson in the UK and Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray in the US. They are television personalities and cookbook authors and have never raised a chopping knife in anger in a real kitchen.

However, things are changing, and quite rapidly, on both sides of the Atlantic. It wasn’t so long ago that Gordon Ramsey said, “There are huge numbers of young women out there who know how to mix cocktails but they can’t cook to save their lives.” And yet just a few years after that, in 2007, he appointed the then 29 year-old Clare Smyth to the position of Head Chef in his eponymous flagship restaurant in West London. She became the first female chef in Britain to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars. Ramsey also has Angela Hartnett as his Executive Chef in his Murano restaurant in Mayfair. She opened it in 2008 and got her first Michelin star the following year.

Hartnett and Smyth weren’t the only ones though to have at least one Michelin star. Already on the list was The River Café in West London, run by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray; the Old Vicarage in Sheffield, where Tessa Bramley is Chef-Patron; the Yorke Arms in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire, owned by Frances Atkins; Northcote restaurant in Langho, near Blackburn, Lancashire, where Lisa Allen is Head Chef; and Morston Hall, near Blakeney, Norfolk, where Samantha Wegg is one of three Head Chefs. And there are several others in the UK who are right up there with them. Emily Watkins at The Kingham Plough, Chipping Norton, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair and Rachel Humphrey at Le Gavroche, also in Mayfair.

Ramsay himself has since admitted, “Women learn much quicker and bring a far greater level of patience and tolerance to a kitchen than any male chef I’ve met. The gates are open for women. It’s more of a level playing field now than ever before.” Interestingly, his US-based television show ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ has been running for eight seasons and four of the winners have been female. Nona Sivley won the latest competition in December 2010 and has been appointed Head Chef of the LA Market restaurant at the JW Marriott hotel in Los Angeles; a very high profile appointment for a professional chef.

Over in the States there have been a number of notable female chefs operating at the highest levels. Known as the inventor of California Cuisine, Alice Waters is the promoter and co-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Just out of college she found her love of fresh, local ingredients on a trip to France in 1964 and founded Chez Panisse in 1971. She was the first female chef to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 1992. Cat Cora came to fame as the first – and still only – female ‘Iron Chef’ in the franchise’s history with a style that combined her Southern roots and Greek heritage. She attended the Culinary Institute of America and is the co-founder of Chefs for Humanity, which mobilizes chefs to raise funds and provide resources in instances of emergency.

Elizabeth Falkner graduated from art school in 1989 but changed gears when she took a job as a chef at Café Claude in 1990. This led her to develop a ‘pastry arts’ style and she opened her first restaurant, Citizen Cake, in San Francisco in 1997. She still owns, and is the Executive Pastry Chef at, Citizen Cake whilst also being the Executive Chef and co-owner of Orson restaurant. Lidia Bastianich has lived the true ‘American Dream’. Her family arrived in New York City in 1958 after having escaped from Pola, Istria (in present day Croatia) when Lidia was 11 years old. She was married at 19 and by 25 she had two children. However, before her second child was born, the Bastianich family opened an Italian restaurant called Buonovia, meaning ‘on the good road’ in Forest Hills, Queens. The restaurant was so successful that the family opened a second restaurant in Queens, Villa Secondo, where Lidia gained the notice of food critics. In 1981, the family opened Felidia in a small Manhattan brownstone, which received a three star review from the New York Times in 1994; she became one of the first female chefs to receive a three star review.

Nancy Silverton’s career as a chef began when she was just 18 years old and living in the California State University dormitory where she worked as a vegetarian cook in the dormitory kitchen. Eventually, she started a career as a pastry chef and became the first woman to win a James Beard award in 1991 for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Cristeta Comerford is another great example of the ‘American Dream’, moving from the Philippines to the United States at just 23 years old. Walter Scheib, the Executive Chef during the Clinton White House years, recruited her to be a chef, and in 2005, when Scheib left, Comerford became the first female Executive Chef of the White House; a position she has held during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Whilst no longer a chef, Ruth Reichl began her career as one. She was chef and co-owner of the collectively owned Swallow Restaurant in Berkeley, California from 1973 to 1977. And she played an important role in the California Food Movement along with fellow female chef Alice Waters. Reichl’s love of food eventually lead her not only to cook but also to write about food for the LA Times, where she was Restaurant Editor; the New York Times, where she was the Restaurant Critic; and, most recently Gourmet magazine, where she was Editor-in-Chief until 2009.

Samui has had a few female head chefs but women are still hugely under-represented in the top restaurants here. Significantly though, the vast majority of Thai restaurants on the island are owned and run by women. And how many times have you been to a little out-of-the-way Thai eatery and had some of the best food you’ve ever eaten? Too many to count I’d wager – and that speaks volumes. Is it a man’s world in the kitchen? Not any more!


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