Inside the WhatsApp group for top women chefs

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Women chefs are busy. We are mums, carers, social media wizards, counsellors and everything in between, all before we’ve tied our butcher’s apron strings and lit the stoves. And our workplace is a kitchen, which does a better job than most of cutting a person off from daylight, time and sometimes reality. So how do we maintain sanity? There’s a WhatsApp group for that.

Women are more cautious about asking each other for help than men. We don’t network as well as we should. I’ve been working in predominantly male kitchens my whole career. Now I’m in management, I’ve tried to address that and work with an almost all-female team. But sometimes you want to speak to other women who are at the top, running their own businesses. So I set up a WhatsApp group. When I see “Chefs👩‍🍳 ” pop up, I know it will be something good.

I have tallied the five recurring themes from our group and they perfectly sum up what it’s like to be a female chef.

Finding a date to meet up (eight attempts)

The odds are against us. Getting 50 busy women together from all over the country is a logistical nightmare. We eventually managed a few drinks in a pub in north London (on a Monday) and vowed to do it monthly. That was a while ago.

“I would love to be there but . . . ” (19 mentions)

These cannot be labelled excuses as they are really reminders that life exists outside the kitchen.

“Has anyone got any staff?” (10 mentions)

Hospitality is renowned for being continuously understaffed. So we beg, borrow and steal, even if that’s just for a pair of arms and legs to work the garnish section. I covered a grill shift at a friend’s place last summer so she could go to Wimbledon. I wouldn’t have had her miss it for the world.

Discussions of misogynistic chefs (one very long, continuous conversation that cannot be quantified)

Cataloguing the tone-deaf insensitivity of our more testosterone-fuelled colleagues weaves its way through the real-world meetups and the group chat. I was sitting at a hospitality conference just last year and rolling my eyes at the drivel coming out of the main speaker’s mouth, including that kitchens only operate properly when driven by the fear of failure. It was as if we had just rewound 50 years. I certainly could have done with this network when I was first a head chef and a contractor came into the almost empty kitchen and asked to speak to the person in charge (me), or when I was routinely asked if I was the pastry chef. Why it is always assumed that the women are in charge of the sugar I’ll never know.

Congratulations! (87 mentions)

The reasons we are all here: love, support and championship. The chat went crazy when Adejoké Bakare’s restaurant became the first run by a Black British woman to win a Michelin star. There are also restaurant awards, book launches, glowing reviews, interviews and so much more. A chef posted the other day saying she was feeling grumpy and blue and wondering why she bothers, and I hope our responses reminded her.

Sally Abé is chef-consultant at The Pem and author of “A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen” (Fleet)

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