When Angela Hartnett cooked at an all-female event in Brazil, she decided to hold a similar festival in London, with the help of food and wine writer Fiona Sims and in partnership with American Express. Joanna Wood reports
Once upon a time, female head chefs and chef-proprietors were rare - at least at the highest level, and particularly in the UK. However, slowly but surely things have been changing.
These days there are several internationally renowned women cooking in headline kitchens across the world - Elena Arzak in Spain, Lea Linster in Luxembourg, and here in the UK we have the likes of Hélène Darroze, Angela Hartnett, Clare Smyth and Anna Hansen to name a few. Women haven't taken over the restaurant industry yet, but then they haven't staged a mass takeover of boardrooms in business in general. As Hansen - chef-proprietor of London's Modern Pantry - points out: "Restaurants are only falling into line with the rest of society".
Earlier this month, Hansen was one of six chefs taking part in an all-female food festival at 1 Lombard Street, in the City of London. Also cooking at the event were Hartnett, Smyth and three other internationally regarded female chefs - Gabrielle Hamilton of New York's Prune (a winner of one of the USA's prestigious James Beard awards), South Africa's Margot Janse of Franschhoek's Le Quartier Francais, and darling of the Brazilian restaurant scene, Helena Rizzo of Saõ Paulo's Mani restaurant.
Dreamed up by Hartnett and food and wine writer (and regular Caterer and Hotelkeeper contributor) Fiona Sims, the event ran for three nights, pairing the women together to cook - a London host chef with a visiting chef on each night.
"It wasn't meant to be two fingers up at male chefs," explains Hartnett, "but when I met Helena it was at an all-female event I cooked at in Brazil, then I did another one in Australia, so I thought, 'why not London?' It's just meant to be a celebration of the cooking of some great female chefs."
Hartnett opened the festival on the Sunday night, cooking for 130 guests, alongside Hamilton - whose recent book Blood, Bones & Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef - has achieved best-selling status along the lines of Kitchen Confidential.
"It went really well," said Hartnett, speaking the following night. "There were a few miscounted plates, a few moments, but nothing unusual. It was a bit nerve-wracking because it was obviously an event I'd set up, but we had a room of genuinely happy diners when we came up to say hello after service."
Although she wasn't headlining on the remaining nights, Hartnett stayed in the kitchen during the Monday and Tuesday evening services, helping out where necessary. Most of the time, she actually wasn't needed, as the atmosphere was calm to the point of being laid-back, certainly when Smyth and Rizzo were bossing the pass.
"I think women work really well together," says Smyth (the only woman in the UK in charge of a three-Michelin-starred kitchen). "They just get things done."
Cool and self-contained, Smyth, surprisingly, doesn't cook at food events very often.
"When Angela asked me to do this I thought it was unique. Some of the best chefs in the world are female, but you don't often see them at this type of event, so I think it's important for women to step into the limelight and raise the awareness of female chefs. There are still not enough. I think the public's perception is still that chefs are men, as most of the chefs on TV are male and the women cooking on TV are mainly non-professional cooks or cookery writers. So it's an ongoing crusade to get more women into top positions in the industry, and events like this help."
That said, Smyth admits to a bit of ennui when it comes to promoting her gender in the press. "I do get sick of journalists always picking up on the female angle when they interview me. I'm just a chef doing a job."
It's a sentiment that Smyth's counterpart on the night, Rizzo, echoes. Like her London colleague, she doesn't often travel out of her restaurant kitchen. That will probably change as her international status rises. She's Brazil's leading female chef, famous for a modern sensibility in her cooking, which often takes dishes from the cultural melting pot of Brazilian cuisine and translates them for a contemporary audience. She does this at her restaurant Mani, co-owned with her husband, Spanish chef Daniel Redondo, who she met when they were working at Spain's El Celler can Roca.
Two dishes on her Girls' Night Out menu typify her style: fish moqueca with arracacha terrine and her dessert, which comes to the table looking like a fried egg: but the white is coconut foam, the yolk an ice-cream and hidden underneath are bits of crunchy coconut.
Moqueca is a traditional Brazilian fish stew, which in Rizzo's skilful hands was much more than a rustic favourite: instead of using shrimp and a lot of broth in the moqueca, she served a sliver of sea bass on a purée of the carrot-like arracacha, with a taster of sauce.
She was careful when choosing her dishes to consult with Smyth, both chefs tailoring their food to build a menu that reflected both their styles while at the same time eating logically. They both, like all the other chefs taking part in the event, made sure they chose dishes that had substantial pre-prep and mise en place and were not over-complicated. "Maximum flavour," was Smyth's mantra for the evening.
And when it comes to dishing out advice to aspiring young girls thinking of following the cheffing route, Smyth, Rizzo, Hansen et al have this to say: go to a good college, do stages where you can as you train, be prepared to work hard in a mentally, as well as physically, demanding environment - and don't quit if the going gets tough. It is worth it, if you are passionate enough.
Left to right: Anna Hansen, Gabrielle Hamilton, Helena Rizzo, Angela Hartnett, Margot Janse, Clare Smyth, Fiona Sims
(Prune, New York, USA)
(Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London)
(Mani, Saõ Paulo, Brazil)
(Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek, South Africa)
Sommelier Dawn Davies (head wine and spirit purchaser, Selfridges, London)
Venue 1 Lombard Street -Tim Richardson, head chef
Wines all made by/originated by female wine-makers
CLARE SMYTH AND HELENA RIZZO'S MENU
Canapes - butter poached langoustines with lard di colonnata, steamed truffle bun with artichoke and Parmesan, mini Scotch eggs (Clare Smyth)
Waldorf salad with apple jelly, celery sorbet, gorgonzola cheese emulsion and caramelised nuts (Helena Rizzo)
2011 'Y' series Riesling, Yalumba, Australia
Wild garlic risotto with morels and roasted veal sweetbreads (Clare Smyth)
2010 Mud House "Golden Terraces" Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand
Fish moqueca with arracacha terrine (Helena Rizzo)
2005 Marques de Murrieta Reserva, Rioja, Spain
"The Egg" egg yolk ice-cream, coconut foam and crispy coconut (Helena Rizzo)
Lemon parfait with bergamot, honey and sheep's milk yogurt sorbet (Clare Smyth)
2007 Cypres de Climens, Barsac, France
STAGING A GASTRONOMIC EVENT
● Plan at least six months in advance, preferably a year ahead (in order to get the venues and chefs you want)
● Clear your diary for the month prior to the event - you will not work on anything else
● Choose your partners/sponsors carefully to reflect your event - be prepared to have several sponsors in the current economic climate
● When choosing a venue make sure the kitchen space can accommodate guest chefs alongside its functioning team
● Get the venue's host chef on board (he or she will be the one who sorts out produce logistics with guest chefs)
● Think about making the event a fundraiser for charity - often this will sell tickets more quickly
● Have a month-by-month marketing plan in place (to include features in industry and national publications, it's useful to have a list of feature angles to give to media contacts)
● Consider having competitions and/or deals for places at the meals
● Give the guest chefs budgeting guidelines for the dishes they cook
● DO pick dishes that reflect the essence of your cooking style
CHOOSING DISHES FOR A ONE-OFF GALA/BANQUETING DINNER
WOMEN IN THE KITCHEN
● There are 151 Michelin-starred restaurants in UK - 11 are headed up by female chefs
● Lexington Catering estimates that 18% of its chef workforce are female
● Anna Hansen: "I think more and more females are coming in to the industry. People are a bit more relaxed in the kitchen, they don't feel as aggressive as in the past. It's become a more acceptable occupation."