It is believed that the kitchen is a woman’s place and as girls grow up cooking with their grandmothers and mothers, they carve their culinary career path from an early age.
But being amazing home cooks rarely elevates them to professional chefs.
At most high-end restaurants in Nairobi and Mombasa, there are no female executive chefs.
The InterContinental Hotel, for instance, has a male executive chef and one woman sous chef. Out of the 50 chefs at the hotel, just 18 are women. The Nairobi Serena and Tamarind Tree hotels which both have male executive chefs also have female sous chefs, who are a step below the executive chefs.
At Utalii Hotel, which has a college that trains hospitality workers, the ratio of women chefs to men is one to three, says Catherine Sidi of the food production department at the college.
This is the reality in the rest of the top hotels. Even globally, the number of male chefs awarded Michelin stars, the ultimate accolade of fine dining, outnumbers those given to women.
An executive chef leads the kitchen teams and also participates in cooking, planning menus and creating new dishes. Whereas a sous chef plans and directs food preparation in a kitchen.
So why don’t women rise to executive chef posts?
The pressure on women to juggle work and home life is nothing new but executive chef John Getanda of the Nairobi Serena says that a top chef’s job mostly involves running through 12 to 14 hour shifts and this could be the reason why more men take up the jobs as opposed to women.
“It is not easy and most women have given up along the way despite being capable chefs. Some want to start families and do something else after a short stint in the career,” he says.
Sous Chef Corretta Akinyi of the Hotel InterContinental says that the hours are really what makes the job tough.
“For a woman to rise, she has to work long hours and be willing to stay even after work to perfect and learn new culinary skills that is just not easy for everyone,” she says.
Chef Corretta says while there are almost as many women as men when starting out in hotels, but most female chefs either divert to other ventures or stagnant on junior levels.
“Some prefer to be pastry chefs which is a flexible job in the sense that you can prepare the pastries a day before as opposed to working in the ‘hot kitchen’ where everything is done on the same day and with so much pressure,” she says.
When I ask Chef Getanda whether the restaurant kitchen is like what we see in famed TV series Hell’s Kitchen and if that could be the reason why the job could is tough for women, he laughed.
“No, that is not how kitchens are, and if they were, it would be a bad environment for anyone to work in, not just the women,” he says.
He adds that the industry needs to work on its representation, conditions and image to achieve a truly diverse workforce.