Even though home cooking has traditionally been a female purview, the professional food world has primarily been — and remains — a man’s world. Over the past decade or two, women have increasingly been choosing cooking as a career, yet it is extremely challenging for them to attain success as chefs. The difficulties of raising children while running a restaurant, with its problematic evening-and-weekend time requirements, are largely to blame. And no matter how talented female chefs may be, there is an institutional bias against women in many well-known kitchens, which are run like military brigades that favour their male counterparts, who are better-compensated for the same work.
Still, even though the numbers are dismaying, more and more young female chefs are rising to the top in the world of gastronomy. Tatiana Levha of Le Servan in Paris, Titti Qvarnström of Bloom in the Park in Malmö, Connie DeSousa of Charcut in Calgary, and Nira Kehar of Chez Nini in Delhi are four stellar examples. With their creativity, freshness and new approach towards top cuisine they are helping move things forward at their restaurants, which are among the best in the world
Tatiana Levha, a French chef of Filipino, Polish, and Algerian descent, specialises in bringing different cultures into a delicious collision with classical French food in her bistro Le Servan in Paris. As a result of its inventiveness, affordability and sheer deliciousness, Le Servan has recently become a darling of the food world, with many people calling it the best restaurant in Paris today — no small accomplishment for a 31-year-old chef.
Tatiana Levha believes the reason that professional chefs have mainly been men up until now is mainly because of the physical dimensions of the job — “male chefs have it easier when it comes to carrying big pots of hot water, or anything heavy”. Still, she adds, it is hard for both men and women to focus on a career and a family at the same time. “It seems complicated for any working person to balance a job they’re passionate about and a family life,” she explains. We opened a family restaurant and I work with my sister, plus we both live right near the restaurant, which definitely helps.”
And it also helps that she is deeply passionate about her craft. “I love almost everything about it,” she confides. “I love preparing, cooking, and cutting meat. I also love very busy services, the tension and rhythm of it — it tires me like a good run.”
The Canadian Connie DeSousa is co-chef and co-owner of the fantastic Calgary, Alberta, restaurants Charcut Roasthouse and Charbar. When she was growing up, both of her parents were home cooks. She says she finds it curious that professional chefs have mainly been men up until now, because “most of us grow up with our mothers and grandmothers as the main nurturers in our families, providing us with memorable home-cooked meals.”
She has found it possible to become a mother at the same time as running the restaurant because she owns Charcut and Charbar with her co-chef and business partner, John Jackson.
As a chef Connie DeSousa always had a passion for meat. After she graduated from culinary school, she apprenticed at Owl’s Nest in Calgary, where they do their own butchering and charcuterie. Now she is known herself for her stand-out butchery skills and her “toe-to-tail” philosophy. At Charcut, charcuterie is an important part of the menu. They make their own sausages and pâté, and cure all of the meat in-house, including the bacon.
Today, Charcut and Charbar emphasise equality in their kitchens, with half of their brigades being male and half being female. That intentional balance is something DeSousa is particularly proud of. “I love to see talented ladies following their passion in the kitchen,” she says.
Titti Qvarnström has the world’s brightest eyes. These eyes, combined with her shy manner, make her seem so vulnerable that at first glance nobody would suspect that she has made a name for herself in the men’s world of fine cuisine.
For her guests at Bloom in the Park in Malmö, Sweden, Qvarnström stages evenings that are full of surprises. The restaurant is housed in a black wooden building on a lakeshore. The interior designer Jonas Lindvall has converted it into a wonderfully airy, bright and comfortable restaurant.
Qvarnström, who is just 35, serves only a “surprise menu”. “I consider it very important to present surprising tastes and ingredients, as well as animal parts that are generally not served very often,” she says. “All of my favourite ingredients, whether vegetables or meat, come from local sources. I make a point of staying in touch with the farmers. That way you get a completely different understanding of the food.”
The guests have to rely implicitly on the chef’s decisions about the food that comes out of her kitchen. Only after her guests have finished dessert does she tell them, via internet, what they have eaten. Even the names of the wines remain a secret.
The “surprise your guests” principle creates a win-win situation. The guests are happy to get to know foods they may never have tried before, such as caramelised cotton, bull testicles, veal sweetbreads, grasshoppers and bread made black with charcoal. Every course sparks a round of guessing, tasting, sniffing and sampling, as the plates present many diverse products in odd and aesthetic combinations. And the chef de cuisine also benefits, as she does not have to throw away food the guests would have disdained if there had been a menu. This is how Sweden’s best chef received her Michelin star. Titti Qvarnström hopes “that I can open up a path and inspire other young women to assert themselves in this profession.”
“Female figures in families have been the most important chefs in India thus far,” explains Nira Kehar, of Chez Nini, located in Delhi’s Meherchand market. “Indians have only in recent times started to go out to eat in restaurants.” As in other countries around the world, says Nira Kehar, who was raised in Montreal, Canada, and started her working life as a computer engineer, “the landscape for women and the reality for their everyday lives has changed a lot over the last 70-odd years. You are now seeing a rise in the number of female chefs.”
Few know that the principles of Ayurveda guide her cooking. “I am not a doctor. You do not come to my restaurant to take a cure, yet it’s so important to me to make food that respects the system of Ayurveda,” she once said in an interview. “I don’t make Indian food. I am on a mission to use the amazing Indian ingredients around me to bring to life the food that I dream up and create using the techniques I have trained in. For me the vegetable/fruit/lentil/grain can be the star and carry a dish. The goal is to highlight the true flavours of natural ingredients, and we have workshopped on developing unique combinations of herbs, sauce, spices and cooking methods to excite the diner, who need not be vegetarian at all.”
Text: Adam Gollner