The women redefining Britain’s food scene: Clare Finney on her debut book The Female Chef

by Henry Coldstream 1 December 2021

Determined to look more closely at the gender imbalance still very much present within the world of restaurants, Clare Finney set out chatting to thirty-one inspiring women in food about their stories and experiences of the industry. Henry Coldstream chats to Clare to find out more.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

It may feel like the march of progression is in full swing when it comes to addressing the gender imbalance present within the restaurant industry (and society as a whole), and in many ways it is. Yet despite women traditionally being encouraged to cook at home, in 2018 only seventeen percent of professional chefs were women – five percent less than in 2010, while less than a quarter of the world’s fifty best restaurants currently have women at their helm. It was stats like these along with conversations she had with her mother and grandmother during the first coronavirus lockdown that inspired food writer Clare Finney to put together The Female Chef – a collection of interviews and recipes from some of the women at the forefront of the UK’s food scene.

The use of gendered language in the kitchen, whether consciously or subconsciously, undeniably has played a large role in reinforcing stereotypes. And it was in fact a conversation with her grandmother about the distinction between the words ‘cook’ and ‘chef’ (which is discussed in depth at the start of the book) that fuelled Clare’s desire to look more deeply at the relationship between women and food. ‘I would call my grandmother a chef, but she would call herself a cook,’ explains Clare. ‘Therein lies the rub. However much you want to remove gender from the language, those words remain incredibly gendered and aren’t as clear cut as we’d like to believe. There have been professional cooks for centuries and also chefs operating in restaurant kitchens; but increasingly there are chefs doing supper clubs and pop-ups, operating outside of restaurant kitchens. The relationship seems to be in a state of flux and that was the dynamic I wanted to explore.’

Making use of the time out of the kitchen that many were experiencing for the first time in a while during the national lockdown, Clare began to organise conversations with thirty-one different women in food, allowing this question of ‘chef’ or ‘cook’ to shape the discussions. She quickly found that those she talked to all had differing views on the subject – something Clare was both surprised and intrigued by. ‘It was clearly something that everyone had given a lot of thought to,’ she says. ‘There was such a range of responses and some people’s views even changed as the conversation went on. I think I actually started off wanting to persuade those who said they were cooks that they were chefs – don’t let men own the word chef! – but I kind of went on a journey with it myself and ultimately realised that the important thing was reclaiming both words and having agency over them.’

By interviewing women all at different stages in their careers, cooking a diverse range of cuisines and coming from very different backgrounds, Clare was not only able to get multiple perspectives on this question, but she also became more aware of how these other factors informed their views. In her interview with Ravinder Bhogal, for example, she describes her restaurant Jikoni as having ‘a kitchen at its heart that celebrated the traditions of maternal cooks’, before going on to say ‘the women who came before me have travelled with me, and are standing with me at the pass’. Ravinder is using Jikoni as a platform to elevate and reclaim the food that was cooked for her by women growing up but that wasn’t represented professionally. It was conversations like this which made Clare realise that choosing to refer to oneself as a cook rather than a chef can both be very deliberate and poignant.

‘Another important learning point for me was realising that bound up in that kind of Escoffier-inspired hierarchical system was whiteness, as much as was masculinity,’ explains Clare. ‘Some of these women who are of Indian or South East Asian heritage are cooking in a maternal tradition; they were taught by their mothers and grandmothers in a ‘feminine’ way. By adopting the word ‘cook’ even though they are to all intents and purposes chefs, they elevate this style of cooking, which has previously been overlooked, under-represented or dismissed as domestic or cheap. By elevating the word ‘cook’ and all it represents to the level of restaurants and fine dining, they lift up not just themselves, but the generations of women who have shaped their cuisine.’

Given the statistics mentioned earlier that, on the face of it, point to a real lack of progression, I was interested to know whether Clare, having spoken to all of these women, felt things within the restaurant world were moving in the right direction. ‘This book couldn’t have been written ten years ago,’ she says. ‘I’m proud not of myself, but that we’ve reached a point in 2021 where a book like this can be written and include such a spectrum of perspectives and people.’ However, Clare feels that much more still needs to be done by way of representation in the food media. ‘It’s just the same names again and again,’ explains Clare. ‘And until we all make a concerted effort to change what people are seeing, it’s hard to ensure the changes go deeper. You can only be what you can see and younger generations need to see themselves represented in order to feel like a career in kitchens is accessible.’

Over the course of her introduction and each of the thirty-one conversations she has in The Female Chef, Clare presents a thought-provoking picture of women in the industry. But she’s also aware that those voices are only offering a small proportion of the stories that the many ‘female chefs’ and ‘female cooks’ have to tell (‘there are so many people I still wish I could have included!’). More than anything, however, The Female Chef is a celebration of women in food and for Clare a reminder of how proud she herself is to be one: ‘I’ve always been really proud to be a woman but when I finished writing the book, I just thought good lord, women are amazing! I was just blown away by the strength they all had.’

The Female Chef by Clare Finney is out now.