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Women handling the heat, and testosterone, in the kitchen

Baking a cake for afternoon tea and a making roast for Sunday lunch after church ignited Emily Laubsch’s love for cooking.

Now she is the young pastry chef at one of South Australia’s best regional restaurants, Hentley Farm

Society has traditionally seen women at home in the kitchen, cooking for the family. While many women now work professionally as chefs, men still rule the roost in the world of fine dining.

“At Hentley, all the chefs are male so I do miss having female company in the kitchen,” Emily says.

“Gender balance helps even with atmosphere, which is important in a high intensity professional kitchen.

“Sometimes it’s hard to fit in with a group of males but it depends on the individual as to how they deal with situation.”

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There is no doubt that a chef’s life is a tough one – the long hours, mental and physical demands and lack of social life make for a challenging career that demands passion, which Emily has in abundance.

“I love being creative, precise and perfect, and my passion comes from the instant gratification I get when someone eats my food and loves it,” she says.

Emily’s passion is for patisserie, and she has transitioned from making beautiful cakes in the farm kitchen to intricate and elegant desserts in refined restaurants in the Barossa.

And it’s not because patisserie is seen as a “woman’s section” in many professional kitchens.

“There definitely is a preconception that women are more suited to patisserie, but I don’t look at it as a negative,” Emily says.

“It may suggest that females tend to be more precise and delicate with a higher attention to detail, whereas I guess males are seen to be better at standing the heat of the grill, the pressure of running the pass, the team of chefs, front of house and dealing with customers all at once.”

The head chef position also requires experience, and while many chefs start young, often by the time one is ready to step up, it is also time to start a family.

Cue big time commitment, particularly for women.

“It would be hard to work 50 or more hours a week, run a kitchen and raise a family,” Emily says.

“Females usually look after their kids and therefore can’t work full-time, and you can’t lead a team of chefs only working part-time.”

Hélène Darroz is one woman proving herself in the male dominated industry.

Hélène Darroze in the kitchen with her daughters Charlotte and Quiterie

Hélène Darroze in the kitchen with her daughters Charlotte and Quiterie

The head chef and mother was named the world’s best female chef in 2015 as part of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards held in London this month.

At 48, Darroz is the mother of two adopted girls, owner of a two Michelin star restaurant, but she is also a minority.

Elena Arzak and Helena Rizzo also make the short list of women running a top kitchen, but that’s with a male counterpart.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows a similar story – of the 85,000 chefs employed in Australia in 2013, 79.7 per cent were employed full-time with a gender breakdown of 57.8 per cent male and 18.9 per cent female.

Evidence suggests that the gender imbalance doesn’t stem from a lack of female interest in the industry either.

Le Cordon Bleu is a world renown culinary and hospitality teaching institution, celebrating 120 years of training in 2015.

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Director of Marketing and Communications for the Adelaide campus, Bebe Adams, says the gender balance is quite even at Le Cordon Bleu, with possibly more females in training.

“Generally speaking, women are very active in studying the culinary arts and we have some great graduates who are doing big things globally including Julia Childs, Rachel Khoo and 2012 Masterchef finalist Julia Taylor,” Bebe says.

“Possibly because there has been a lot of male focused TV chefs, there is the perception that women aren’t chefs, but they are.

“Don’t forget that TV panders to the main grocery buyer in the creation of their content for TV, so the perception is not based in reality.”

She’s right – Jamie, Heston or Marco dominate the screens, and, on an episode of Masterchef, more often a male guest chef will feature.

Why not invite some of the female Michelin starred chefs? They do exist.

There are women around the world working as head chefs, and Bebe says, while training and experience is essential, chefs need drive to leaders in the kitchen.

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“It’s comes down to natural leadership skills, the desire to be a leader, and training,” she says.

Ryan Edwards possesses both experience and leadership, heading Appellation’s kitchen in the Barossa, and he is not averse to hiring females, including Emily, in his kitchen.

“Around 40 per cent of all kitchen staff I have worked with have been female,” Ryan says.

“In many ways the “female” looks at things differently, they have different critical control points to which they may pay more attention to detail.”

While Ryan applauds kitchens moving away from the traditional “boys club”, he says that males tend to posses the personality traits needed to succeed as a chef or restaurateur.

“At face value, these are not the most likeable traits for a person to have,” he says.

“They cover the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism often very well, being in a cut throat industry.”

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While Ryan also says there are many grey areas in the understanding of how people within hospitality work, women increasingly display leadership qualities.

“Men are more likely to have these traits, but women are definitely becoming more aggressive and more dominant in their personalities,” he says.

“The women who are successful in hospitality are often very well respected and regarded, as the rest of the hospitality sector know how hard they have had to work for recognition.

“There are some really great female chef’s making their name on the international stage, it’s very interesting and compelling to see the differing styles of great female chefs like Elena Arzak, Helena Rizzo, Margot Janse and Clare Smyth.”

Emily is well on her way to joining this list, and she will enter the international arena in September, representing Australia in the international La Chaine des Rotisseurs Chef Competition in Budapest, Hungary.

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Here her full range of culinary talents, covering both sweet and savory, will be on display in the competition established in 1977 to showcase the talent of young chefs around the world.

After the competition, Emily plans to keep building her skills, whether in Australia or the patisserie capital, France, but running her own kitchen is still a distant dream.

“You learn so much from working in different kitchens,” she says.

“I’ll keep working in fine dining as long as I still love it and I’d like to work in a patisserie and focus on the art of pastry, sugar and chocolate.”

“I have no plans to run a kitchen at this stage because I’m not experienced enough.

“Age is quite important in regards to respect and it’s harder to take advice and direction from someone a lot younger than you.”

And while she would like more female company, Emily’s motivation stems from passion, not the need to prove herself as a female in the industry.

“I’m so driven it probably wouldn’t change if I worked with all females or all males,” she says.

Females remain a minority in kitchens brimming with talented chefs, but talent, passion and drive define being the best, not gender.

Images: Jack Brookes

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