ANTON Edelmann has a dream. "In the next century, at least half the staff in kitchens will be women," he was reported as saying in a recent issue of Chef. "They may even take over."
He has good reason to think so: after all, in his own kitchen at the Savoy in London, a third of the brigade are now women. So is the idea of women struggling to make it as chefs now firmly rooted in the past?
The latest signs suggest it may be. Mary D'Arcy, a senior lecturer at Thames Valley University's School of Hospitality Studies, recently spent time at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire as part of her job. "It was a male-dominated kitchen but the women there didn't seem to have any problems. If anything the men were quite protective towards them and wouldn't allow anybody to get nasty with them," she says. "There were no underlying sexist jokes, they were a team with respect for women."
It is an opinion with which Sarah Crouchman, chef de partie at the Ritz in London, and a former Thames Valley University student, concurs. "The men treat us the same as far as they can because we're all there, all doing the same hours and the same work," she says.
But the apparent harmony which women report from the kitchen today has not always been the case. Angela Petruso has now given up work to bring up three young children but she recalls many an occasion when, some 15 years ago, working as a commis chef at the Dorchester under Anton Mosimann, women were given a hard time and were even subjected to sexual harassment.
"Mosimann was very fair and wouldn't stand for any discrimination," recalls Petruso. "But there were plenty of men in the kitchen who would try it on because I was a woman. Sometimes it was provocative comments, sometimes they would walk past you and come deliberately close, often touching you in the process," she explains. "They expected me to blush or put my head down but I found the best way to deal with it was to stand my ground and tell them calmly to take their hands off me."
Sarah Crouchman at the Ritz is perhaps typical of the young women currently trying to make a career in the kitchen. "A lot of people tried to put me off, saying the hours were long, the work was hard and there were a lot of men in the kitchen. But if it's something you want to do, you do it," she says.
Much of the success of women chefs in the past five to 10 years can be put down to this determination. Part of it is also due to a new, more open-minded, generation of males. And part of it is due to changes in the kitchens themselves. "With the modern equipment there are not so many heavy pots so kitchens have opened up to girls much more," says Edelmann. "Some years ago I employed my first female sous-chef, Susan Tulloch - she was very small and physically not the strongest of people."
For an example of dogged ambition, you can't get much better than Sally Clarke, who opened Clarke's restaurant in Kensington, London, in 1984. Clarke claims that the only discrimination she has suffered from men in her career was from an estate agent she dealt with while she was looking for a suitable site in London. "I'm asked about discrimination all the time and itstaggers me to think the media thinks there's a problem," says Clarke. "I know of a lot of kitchens both in hotels and restaurants that have a generous smattering of both sexes."
She says her success is probably down to her strong personality and the fact that, she believes, there is less discrimination around. "I've had understanding head chefs to work under. And I've known from an early age what I wanted to achieve and how I wanted to do that."
But if things are really so much better, why aren't there more female chefs in the limelight? And why are chefs on television still mostly men? Clarke has her own theory on that one.
"There are a lot of women chefs, but they probably don't have public relations agents which cost thousands of pounds a year to keep them in the public eye," she says. "To me, working in a restaurant is not about heading for the front page, or a TV station. I'm here to create a comfortable restaurant and good food."
Mair Lewis, head chef at the three-star Bodysgallen Hall near LLandudno, North Wales, is something of an exception, having joined the elite line-up of chefs in the public eye. Lewis joined the hotel as a commis chef and took the helm two years ago. Now, aged 30, she has appeared on Granada's Basic Ingredients programme and last year went to New York with the Welsh Tourist Board to cook for journalists and the Welsh community on St David's Day.
Being female in what is fundamentally a male-dominated sector has had its advantages for Mercy Fenton, who was named Young Chef of the Year in 1993, the first woman ever to take the title. Fenton recalls that the seven other finalists in the competition were all men and, being the only woman, she stood out from the crowd. "They all remembered my name. Sometimes it can work in your favour to be a woman," Fenton says.
However, the statistics suggest that there is still a real lack of women in senior positions in kitchens.
At Thames Valley University, on the full-time craft courses for chefs there is a 50:50 split between males and females. But on the part-time courses, which are for people already working in the industry, the ratio of men to women is two to one. Women are training to be chefs, but somewhere along the line they're dropping out.
"You might find colleges with a 50% or 60% ratio of women on chef courses but they tend to come out and go in for management," says Jacqueline Hirst, education co-ordinator at Springboard, the industry's careers service in London. "Chefing is hard work for one thing, and because of some of the attitudes women come across they tend to take a detour."
Pastry kitchens have always been, and continue to be, the one area of the kitchen where women can outnumber men. Patricia Williams, a lecturer at Thames Valley University's School of Hospitality Studies, has been teaching pastry work for 20 years. She says the male/female split on her advanced pastry courses is 50/50. And on patisserie courses, two-thirds of the students are female.
Recruitment firm Portfolio International claims to be filling only about 5% of its top chef jobs with women, although for pastry chefs it is as high as 50%. "It's not anything discriminatory, it's just that there are not many top lady chefs around," says consultant Jane Lintern. "If I had them I'd be only too willing to give them that extra push but I don't often get many. The ones that do well tend to open their own places."
Likewise, Maddalena Bonino, head chef at Bertorelli's restaurant in London's Covent Garden, says she sees a distinct lack of talent, and interest, among women. "I can't say I've interviewed that many women and certainly the kind of food I do should attract a greater variety of interest. But there seems to be very little talent. Most of the people coming here are actually from other countries."
Long working hours appear to be a main obstacle for women climbing the cooking ladder, which is why manyof them opt for hospital, school and contract catering. According to 1992 figures from the Employment Department's Labour Force Survey, 98% of school meals supervisors were women. Women also fill most low-paid jobs - 87% of catering assistants and 77% of waiting staff.
"If women are prepared to do evening work they're not discriminated against like they used to be," says Prue Leith, chairman of the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain and, through her own cookery school, catalyst for many a female chef's career.
She admits that the top chef positions in restaurants are still going to men. "We produce 100 students every year. Only 30 of them are really star quality and, of these, probably 20 will be women. But of the 10 boys, more of them go into restaurants than the girls."
Apart from the hours, it seems that the other thing stopping women in the kitchen is relationships and, ultimately, children. This is something which Mary D'Arcy notices among her younger students.
"They're single-minded about their training but there are not as many that are ready to give up relationships, marriage and children," she says. "They may work four or five years in the industry but, once young girls want to get married and have a family, that's it."
According to Leith, women are still shouldering the responsibility for family matters. She says: "I've seen some statistics which don't apply specifically to kitchens, but they show that women most frequently leave jobs for reasons connected with husbands, children or family matters. Men leave jobs as often as women do, but for them the most frequent reason for leaving is career-related."
For people like D'Arcy, the choice has had to be simple: a career or a family. She believes we will see more and more women making it in the kitchen, but that they will be women like herself, who have decided not to have children. "To move around and get the peachy jobs you either have to be lucky or give up a lot," she says.
Similarly, Lewis, who is single and without responsibilities, admits that success has its price. "I don't have time for a social life and in my days off I lecture at a local college. If I had a family I don't think I could have this lifestyle."
If, as is widely predicted, things do continue to improve for women in the kitchen, the kitchen itself looks set to benefit. Of the people interviewed for this article, men and women, every one of them believed female chefs work differently, and in most cases better, than men. They said they are tidier, more organised, more committed, and work better as a team.
"Women tend to be more caring, they're more concerned about everybody working together in a happy atmosphere and making sure the job is completed," says Springboard's Jacqueline Hirst, herself a former chef. "They tend to follow it right through to the end, cleaning down, tidying up. Male chefs tend to turn on every single stove, use every single pot and then disappear off for a break."
Perhaps, then, we will see more restaurants in future like No. 6, a bistro which opened in Stratford-upon-Avon last month. The kitchen staff consists of eight full-time female chefs and one male, partly through chance and partly through design. Proprietor Sue Gray headhunted two of the women, and found that most of the replies to the other jobs came from females.
But she admits: "I've always enjoyed women working for me more than men. They show more attention to detail, more commitment, and better teamwork."
Perhaps Anton Edelman's dream is not that far from reality after all. o