Four top female chefs with four very different stories to tell. Four leading female chefs joined the international top chef jury at this exciting edition of S.Pellegrino Young Chef, the global chef talent contest. Margarita Forés (Philippines), Annie Féolde (Italy), Dominique Crenn (USA) and Ana Roš (Slovenia) with a wealth of industry experience and accolades between them, were perfectly placed to crown the best young chef in the world.
When their judging hats were momentarily off, we took a moment to sit down with each of these great women in gastronomy. Putting them in the spotlight instead, we discovered more about their inspiring journeys to the top through the lens of gender equality. Through exploring how they have surmounted personal and professional challenges along their journeys, we discovered four very different stories packed with motivational advice for aspiring young female chefs. Here are their stories.
Italophile, Philippine chef Margarita Forés learnt her culinary trade overseas, in her youth from “Signoras” in Italy. Despite stumbling across her love of cooking by chance, she is also happy to look back, with a successful restaurant portfolio and culinary school, and say, “30 years down the road, this is my reality.”
Forés hails from a country with what she calls a “maternal society” where women hold influential positions of power. She’s also excited by an industry that is becoming so much more inclusive, she describes the “wonderful synergy” that both genders bring to the kitchen making the industry so much more vibrant and relevant.
She suggests it’s time to stop looking at the negative and start celebrating the fact that women are so much more represented now in the industry. “There’s a real importance placed on making sure that both genders are well represented in the industry,” she says and even Best Female Chef awards are an absolute step forward: “It’s time to celebrate female energy in the kitchen.”
The Philippines, Forés reminds us, now sees more female students in hospitality and in chef school than male and “that’s a really good sign that woman feel that in spite of the fact it is a physically taxing career that they realise times have changed so much but they can do as well and withstand the challenges of the industry, just as well as males.”
Aspiring young female chefs, she says, should channel their uniqueness. “Draw your experience from inside and your womanhood,” she enthuses, “female chefs are so much more confident in asserting themselves now and should be confident in doing things in a unique way that they can succeed just as well as the male chefs.”
Celebrate your uniqueness and be a flag bearer for the gender. (Margarita Forés)
Self-taught French-born Annie Féolde, chef/owner of Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, entered the kitchen by chance in her early 20s, before it catapulted her into a hugely successful lifelong career, a career that began with helping out her sommelier husband in his Italian enoteca’s kitchen and resulted in her being the first female chef in Italy to attain three Michelin stars.
An inspiring self-determination and dedication to a career meant she “stayed 20 years in the kitchen, reading books at night and working in the kitchen during the day.” However she recommends young female chefs to adopt a more orthodox approach to training, by adapting to the habits of the kitchen by starting young: “Learn the basics in schools, training in restaurants and understand if you are really interested in the trade,” she says.
For Féolde, the conversation surrounding gender equality in the industry “is a necessary step so that women can have the same professional opportunities as men, and can choose whether to have a career and not just a family life.”
Looking back, she offers this advice to young chefs starting out in the business: “Understand if she is aware of what she will do. If she knows she will have to take care of her family, her children, and also of her career … It’s not impossible to reconcile the two things, but you must know that the road is not going to be simple.”
You have to have passion, because it’s full of sacrifices but it’s also a very good job. (Annie Féolde)
Fresh from her win as ‘Best Chef in the West’ at the James Beard Awards, Crenn was pleased to finally receive a non-gendered award, in her bid to encourage a world of “inclusion and acceptance.”
Crenn lives by the call to action, “It’s time to do the right thing” when it comes to discussing gender equality in the industry, a mantra that she practices closer to home, in her San Francisco restaurants: “We are a company that welcomes diversity – we like to understand different walks of life, to have conversations and inspire and be inspired by others, and we mentor all the time. I would say that we are 60 percent women in the whole company.”
A public advocate for gender equality, Crenn also made waves in the industry as the first female chef in the US to be awarded two Michelin stars, for her eponymous San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Apart from tackling “ignorance,” as she puts it, she credits her success to “hard work”, but also her neutrality in her role: “I’m a cook, so it doesn’t matter if I’m a man or a woman,” she says.
Crenn is keen to use her platform to drive change in an industry. “We are the change. The people are the change. We are the leaders of our own destiny and we just have to step up to that,” she says. She speaks of embracing diversity, because “You have to have diversity and when you have diversity you have different conversations and then you have different conversations you have different ideas and when you have different ideas this is when you evolve, and you change things.”
Speaking to aspiring young female chefs she offers up advice that she credits to growing up in an amazing family, where she and her brother were taught the value of life and humanity. “You need to know yourself … If you have skill, just go out there and do it, don’t be afraid,” she says.
You need to be confident, to know yourself, understand that no one’s better than you, but that you’re not better than them either. (Dominique Crenn)
Ana Roš is also a self-taught chef, from Hiša Franko, who’s achieved great things since accidentally taking over the kitchen at the family-owned restaurant in Slovenia in her 20s. From competitive skier to almost diplomat, she’s since dedicated nearly two decades to the culinary trade, earning her place among the world’s best cooks and being voted World’s Best Female Chef in 2017.
From the outside, it would appear a picture-perfect lifestyle in the cosy family restaurant set in the rural Soča Valley. But managing a family, a business, a creative kitchen and generally being an ambassador for Slovenian gastronomy abroad hasn’t all been plain sailing: “I have experienced very difficult moments, some decisions about my career have been difficult to take,” she explains.
However, rather than any institutional challenges, Roš cites her biggest obstacle to achieving goals during her career, as herself. In a career that she states requires 100% dedication, she still struggles with the idea of total parity in the kitchen. More poignantly, the “sense of guilt” that always surrounds a career woman. “One always has the impression of never being enough. Neither with our children, nor in the kitchen. Probably men live better with this sense of guilt (or they do not know it),” she says.
Yet, as a self-confessed realist and grafter Roš has never stopped believing that it’s possible to combine everything. Encouraged by Hiša Franko’s success (it sits at number 69 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at time of writing), which has given her courage and repaid the difficulties she’s faced, she has never stopped trying. Ambitious young female chefs can have it all too, she says: “Remember that there are so many women who have been able to be excellent wives and mothers and great chefs at the same time.”
Ever pragmatic, Roš looks forward to a “more balanced future” that doesn’t distinguish gender, but whether male or female, she would like to see kitchens become more "human" with shorter working hours, thus allowing everyone to “better combine private and professional life.” A practice she’s started to roll out in her own kitchen.
Believe in your dream and never give up, even in difficult moments. (Ana Roš)