Arts and Culture

Femmes in culinary circles

Sue Grant-Marshall

South African women chefs are taking the male-dominated kitchen by storm, writes Sue Grant-Marshall.

Chefs experience stress on a par with airport traffic controllers, says Nicky Gibbs, chef at Soulsa restaurant in Melville, Johannesburg.

She should know, having worked on cruise ships for nearly 14 years where she was often the only woman in a kitchen with up to 100 men.

“The air often turned blue with swearing but I went to an all-girls boarding school in Bloemfontein which was as rough as working in a big kitchen. That helped to prepare me.”

Gibbs will be demonstrating at this weekend’s Good Food and Wine Show, at the Best South African Restaurant exhibit and at the Eastern Mosaic stand.

She believes that one takes to cooking naturally and that chefs are “a breed apart”. She equates it to a calling and says that chefs, like doctors, have to make sacrifices. “I sacrificed having a family.”

Gibbs was born in Cornwall and says chefs, like the Cornish, need to be “strong in the arm and thick in the head”.

It’s an attitude shared by Cheryl Nesbitt, founder and chief executive of Capsicum Culinary Studio that has schools all over South Africa. “Being a chef is not for sissies and women who succeed often have to develop thick skins in the process.”

She grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands with conservative parents and was blown away by the language used in the kitchen. She asked a chef why he always used the “F” word. “Bring me the pots is not the same,” he explained impatiently, “as bring me the fucking pots.”

Nesbitt says large, tension-filled kitchens are not alluring to women, which is why they tend to gravitate to smaller outfits or to move into other culinary circles. She tells a story about friends who went to a chef-owned restaurant. The owner did not allow customers to determine the state of their steaks. He served everything his way. If food came back: “He would throw it on the floor, spit on it, stamp on it and then return it—‘well done’.”

Nesbitt has learned to understand stress. Food, unlike an email, cannot wait until the next day, “so if your child is sick, it’s too bad, people still have to eat,” she says.

It’s one of the reasons that Nesbitt decided to move to culinary training, after working in hotels for eight years before opening her own event management and catering business (which she ran for seven years).

Five years ago she sold up and founded her present culinary studio. With relief she says: “I’ll never again have to shout at someone because I’m on a tight timeline.”

She advises young women to experience first-hand what’s required of chefs before making a career in the kitchen. “Once you’ve committed, it’s an extremely rewarding career,” she says, “because you witness the end result of your work, if it’s a beautiful wedding cake and 500 satisfied guests.”

Nesbitt points out that a good chef will never go unemployed “because there’s a worldwide shortage. It’s one of the top three jobs in demand in Queensland, Australia, and they guarantee you a work visa.”

Alicia Wilkinson, principal of the Silwood School of Cookery, South Africa’s oldest culinary school, says that almost 80% of her students are women. The school has an impressive list of graduates, all cooking up a storm across the world.

She mentions Jodi-Ann Palmer (23), who represented young South African chefs at the World Association of Cooks, where she won a gold medal. Palmer was recently named South African chef of the year.

Another graduate, Angie Steele, is Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef at his internationally acclaimed restaurant, Maze, in London. “She’ll shortly be moving to become his head chef in a new venture in Europe,” Wilkinson says.

Lindi Wallace, banqueting chef at the Mount Nelson hotel, is also a Silwood graduate, as is Leigh-Ann Roberts of Granny Mouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Wilkinson also mentions Margot Janse, 2004 chef of the year and executive chef at Le Quartier Francaise in Stellenbosch, “who has won international accolades for her work”. She says that the Pick n Pay kitchen in Johannesburg is “manned by a woman. Men have dominated the workplace forever,” Wilkinson says. “But women chefs are tough. We’re not jelly babies.”

She concedes that parenthood brings challenges, “but children don’t stay around forever”, she says. “And while they’re young you can start your own small business or make wedding and christening cakes.”

Irish cookery writer and television host Rachel Allen, who will attend the Good Food and Wine Show, said in an interview from Ireland: “There aren’t many women chefs heading kitchens but there are plenty of writers.” She encourages women to become chefs even though “it’s tough—the ones who have succeeded are incredible”.

Allen chose to marry a man in the same business, a course of action advised by all the culinary experts the Mail & Guardian spoke to. Her husband runs two restaurants in their hometown of Cork; they have two children and a third on the way.

So she’s cooking, in more ways than one.

The details
The Good Food and Wine Show takes place from October 30 to November 2 at the Coca-Cola Dome, Northgate. Headline chefs include Australian celebrity Curtis Stone; British-born Caribbean food maestro Patrick Williams; top Irish writer Rachel Allen; Thai expert David Thompson; Chris and James Tanner; and UK chefs Brian Turner and Andrew Nutter.

Attractions include an outdoor living pavilion, a Tastes of Soweto showcase, a Chefs in Action Theatre, cocktail workshops, a Creative Coffee Theatre, an Eastern Mosaic Pavilion, a Best South African Restaurant Chefs Theatre and a natural and organics forum. www.gourmetsa.com

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