Don't let sexism be the demise of the restaurant industry as we know it

Award-winning chef and cookery school principal Jackie Cameron believes gender has no place in a professional kitchen — especially the pastry section

23 April 2020 - 00:00 By Jackie Cameron
Chef Jackie Cameron has spoken out against sexism in the industry.
Chef Jackie Cameron has spoken out against sexism in the industry.
Image: Supplied

When asked my opinion on women chefs, I have strong views - but I ask you, the reader, to remember this is a personal opinion about personal experiences — and at a time when Covid-19 is topmost in the world’s mind, I am privileged to have this opportunity to focus on an issue that continues to plague the hospitality industry.

A false assumption presumes there are fewer women than men in top restaurants because men are better chefs. Have critics considered that many women choose different avenues in the culinary world? I am an example of this.

Having worked as a chef and head chef for some 15 years, I’m now teaching aspiring chefs - some of whom may follow careers as food writers, food photographers, food stylists or food outlet owners. There are many choices.

Since establishing my school, the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine, I’m often asked what’s it’s like no longer being a chef. What? I’m cooking more, working longer hours and working closer to food than ever before. I am a chef - perhaps no longer in a top restaurant, but in what I like to believe is a top culinary school. I am also a business owner. Both positions are stressful, but the rewards are worth the pressure.

Another mystery to me is female student chefs being placed in the pastry section when they enter their practical, in-service placement — because "it’s the place girls should be".

I too was guilty of doing this, but for a different reason. Any new member of the team (male or female) began in the pastry department because, in my opinion, it’s the most difficult place to be. Once the person proved themselves competent, I would move them to their section of choice (which could of course be the pastry division).

At the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine, I encourage students to adopt my viewpoint, that they are chefs — not male chefs or female chefs. They will need the strength to pit their ability against others in the industry, regardless of sex, race or age.

They will have to be competitive, working diligently to highlight their capability. By taking every opportunity as a challenge, they will have little time to reflect on whether their competitor is male or female.

A primary focus at my school is emotional strength training, which empowers students to speak out with honesty and integrity. Confidence in their ability is important, but so is the confidence to ask for help, regardless of whether approaching a man or a woman.

Pride in being a chef is paramount, as is the ability to recognise the strengths and weaknesses that each person brings to the kitchen.

The hospitality industry is tough. Our emphasis should be on making it a healthier, happier place

The hospitality industry is tough. Our emphasis should be on making it a healthier, happier place — somewhere we enjoy working, side by side, with different people of differing colour, race, creed, age and sex.

If you are unhappy, speak out — we are all listening. While whinging about long hours, having to lift and carry — all normal kitchen duties — will fall on deaf ears, genuine complaints about inappropriate working conditions will be investigated.

I strongly recommend researching your career choice before deciding to become a chef. This is a demanding but extremely satisfying industry - if you have the capacity to work hard.

Today, chefs are more than cooks. Culinary students are well-educated matriculants who are qualified to follow any vocation of their choice. They’re entering a recognised career and restaurateurs should relook conditions of employment because chefs - male and female - are demanding a balanced lifestyle. Deny them this and we may see the demise of foodie experiences as we know them.

Now that I have shared my non-sexist viewpoint, you can imagine my reaction when an elderly gentleman, noticing I was pregnant, said: “I cannot believe Jackie Cameron is pregnant.”

I looked at him, confused.

“I never thought the business mind of Jackie Cameron would ever allow herself to get pregnant,” he added.

I told him my hard work was aimed at leaving a legacy - that my "business mind" was working overtime. I smiled and carried this lesson to my students: never entertain people with blinkered vision.