Chefs And The Women Who Inspire Them
March 8th is International Women's Day – a day where we’re encouraged to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the world. If we're being totally honest with ourselves, then every day of the year should probably be International Women’s Day. None of us would be anywhere without the women in our lives and we should all be working harder to ensure that the world we live in is one free from sexism and misogyny.
The unfortunate reality is that that’s not the world we live in. Not by a wide margin. Women’s rights are human rights and it's impossible to feel at peace when countless girls and women around the globe still face discrimination on the basis of sex and gender on an almost daily basis. About 1 in 3 women have experienced violence in their lifetime. Only six countries in the world give women and men equal legal work rights. Women’s jobs have been 1.8 times more vulnerable than men's jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Even here in the UK, the gender pay gap is still very much "a thing" and the work of women all over the nation remains vastly underpaid and under-appreciated. All of that is unacceptable. That's why International Women’s Day is just as important today as it was 46 years ago. And that's why why we really, really, really don’t need to know when International Men’s Day is.
In the words of bell hooks, “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” and “feminist thinking teaches us all, especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.” I am far from a perfect feminist but I’m trying my best (so bear with), and I know that educating one’s self on the various gender inequalities is as good a place as any to start. That being said, we’re just your friendly neighbourhood recipe website and think that it’s probably best to leave that education to the trained professionals over at Amnesty International, Rights of Women, Human Rights Watch, and many of the other wonderful organisations doing important work in the field.
Sticking to our lane, and placing a focus on the potential power of food and drink to transcend gender boundaries and hierarchies, we thought we’d take this opportunity to celebrate some of the brilliant women working in the hospitality industry. We were lucky enough to speak to a range of talented chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors and got them, in their own words, to tell us about the women who have inspired them the most in their lives.
Here’s what they had to say:
Katya Torres de la Rocha – CEO and owner of MexGrocer.co.uk
"Growing up and being educated in Mexico in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was told that girls should know how to cook, clean, and keep a house tidy so that one day you could be a good housewife. Some men (including my own father) believed that there was no point in studying; that it was a waste of time as all you would end up doing anyway was cleaning a house and raising children. In my mother's generation, very few women went to university or had 'careers', and therefore had very little to fall back on when they lost their husbands (through divorce, separations, or whatever life threw at them). They were hugely exposed with no skills, no independence, and in desperate need to pay the bills and feed their children. However, these women knew how to cook good food – this is the only thing they had. In our country, we called these women “fonderas” and they had “la fonda”. Here, single women would sell beautifully cooked, delicious homemade food from their doorsteps. All at an affordable price.
These women inspire me, because of their devotion to their kids and the determination to be independent, using the skills available to them in such hardship. Some fondas became very famous; a sign that women are survivors no matter the circumstances they're put in. Many women in my family were fonderas at the same time – common for the lower middle classes. My great Aunt was a very good one. She only studied up to the third year of primary school and when her husband died, this is how she fed her four children, all of whom ended up going to university – she was quite the inspiration!
These fondas are important socially: they are a lifesaver for other women and working mothers who don't have time to cook, but can rely on their local fonda for good nutritious food. Fondas in Mexico are both a reflection on the social injustice and gender inequality, and also proof of the dignity of the women who are determined to succeed in life, despite inequality."
Ruth Hansom – Head Chef of The Princess Of Shoreditch
"For International Women’s Day 2021, I would like to say a few words about Anne Pierce MBE. Anne is such an inspiration to me: she founded Springboard, a charity that helps to get homeless, previously incriminated, and young people into hospitality. She has helped to change the lives of so many, including myself, and really cares about each individual she works with or meets. She constantly seeks ways that she can raise money to help others in need and always encourages people to see their potential. I also cannot not mention the two fabulous women that achieved three Michelin stars this year, Hélène Darroze and Clare Smyth, who prove to all female chefs that if you want something, you can make it happen. There are no barriers if you are willing to work hard."
Sabrina Ghayour – Chef, Food Writer and Author
“My mother can’t cook at all, and has actually never prepared a single meal in her life because she wasn’t allowed to as a kid, but she definitely inspired me and always pushed me to experiment and enjoy cooking from a young age by driving me all over the place to experience different foods and cuisines. It's actually been beneficial for me in a lot of ways that my mother wasn't a cook – it's made me who I am. I also wouldn't be where I am today without my publisher, my publicist, and my agent. Without sounding too sappy or girl power-ish, my career is nothing without those women.
I’m terms of industry figures, Nigella Lawson is a huge influence and her writing and recipes have always given me the confidence to try things out, knowing that her recipes always work. Now that I’m a chef myself, she continues to inspire me because she always makes what I want to eat and always has a laid back approach to cooking which I still adhere to. Nigella's helped shape my understanding of what people really value when reading a recipe and taught me how to provide it to people without being overly complicated, lengthy, or rigid. I also love Madhur Jaffrey who (along with Ken Hom and Delia Smith) was one of the first cooks I watched on TV as a kid in the 80s. She ignited my passion for cookery and experimenting in the kitchen. English food was, for the most part, alien to me but with Madhur, I really felt like, 'I can connect with this woman'. She helped make ingredients like cumin, cinnamon and turmeric staples and really opened things up for me, personally."
Jill Stein OBE – Co-founder of the Seafood Restaurant, Director across all Rick Stein restaurants
"Someone who I’ve been really inspired by is Elizabeth David, who – as far as the food was concerned – was a major inspiration to me when Rick and I first started our restaurant. She was a woman who was very out-there at a time, in the early '50s after the War, when English food was pretty bog standard, really. Another woman who inspires me today would be Angela Hartnett, who is a huge inspiration to women chefs who work in kitchens which are still very male-dominated today. She worked for Gordon Ramsay, so she dealt with quite a lot of psychological warfare in her time and she's a great inspiration to all women who work in hospitality and who work in kitchens. Angela was no shrinking violet and she managed to work with these guys, like Gordon Ramsey, in a pretty tough environment. You've got to be a certain sort of woman to be able to deal with that. And Angela is just that sort of woman. You wouldn't mess with Angela.
Alice Waters would be someone else that I’ve really looked up to. She founded the organic movement, really, back in the '70s when most American food was just fried chicken and burgers. Alice was there at the forefront of it all in California doing what a lot of people are still doing today. The final woman who’s inspired me is a lady called Julia Lalla-Maharajh. Julia founded Orchid Project – which is a charity that works to end female genital cutting (FGC). She went out to Ethiopia a few years ago and found out that 70% of women in Ethiopia have been cut. She started this charity to help stop that. She is a truly, truly great woman."
Dipna Anand – Chef and Author
"My mum – who I call 'super chef' – is the most talented person I know and a master of all cuisines. She's definitely a role model and someone that I look up to but the funny thing about her is that, when she got married to my dad, she knew nothing about cooking. Like, she couldn't even make a paratha bread! A few days after they got married, my dad asked her to make paratha and she started crying because she didn't know how to do it. She had to ring her mum and then my nan gave her the instructions over the phone. They've been married for 40-odd years now but in that time she’s taught herself so much about food that it astounds me. She outshines me and my dad by far and my brother always says, ’no-one can touch mum's cooking.’ He’s right. Over the last nine years, she's been struggling a bit with Parkinson's but that still doesn't stop her in the kitchen. She's always experimenting with new dishes. She'll amaze me with the most simple ingredient that she’s able to make taste so good. She's definitely a woman that's inspired me right from day dot. Even now, if I'm making a dish that I'm not very confident with, she's the first person that I'll ask for advice.”
Kimberly Hernandez, Head Chef at The Silver Birch
“Outside of my sisters and mom, there are some outstanding women in the industry in London who I have to applaud. Margot Henderson from Rochelle Canteen is one of them – she’s undoubtedly caring, soulful, and just a straight-up badass woman. Her passion for food, life and celebration is captivating, inspiring and timeless. Nieves Barragan is another. Her cooking is exceptional, soulful, and honest. It’s the type of impression any and all chefs aspire to put on a plate. Nathalie Beaufond who works at A.WONG also inspires me. That place wasn’t given two Michelin stars recently just because the food is fantastic –Nathalie welcomes you and leads the team with such care and kindness that you are always reminded that you matter whenever you eat there. I also learned a lot about business, design, visuals, and aesthetic from Erchen Chang at BAO that continues to resonate with me today. She’s the Willy Wonka of BAO.”
Noor Murad – Recipe Developer at Ottolenghi Test Kitchen
"There is no 'one woman fits all' approach to the women who have inspired me. Every day I’m inspired by women who uplift other women, who root for other women, who pick up the broken pieces of their daughters, sisters, mothers and best friends and help put them back together again. Growing up in the Middle East, and moving to London in my late twenties, made me realise that the hardships of being a woman transpire in every culture, no matter if it’s East or West, Muslim or other. So every day a different woman will inspire me, along with the individual journey which got her to where she is today."
Adejoké Bakare, Chef at Chishuru
"For me, the most important person of all, in my life and food journey, has always been my grandmother on my father's side. She was a second wife and just came in determined that, whatever happens, she was going to make everything work all by herself. She had her own small business where she sold kola nuts and street food where I grew up. She was a real inspiration but I've also been inspired by a few other women when it comes to food. One of those women is Jessica B. Harris – she's an American cookbook author and I'm amazed by how she's been able to connect the food of Africa with the food from the southern parts of America. She's shown the connection between those two cultures and how the slaves took what they knew from growing up in Africa and became the southern American cooking we know today. Another American chef that I really look up to is Mashama Bailey. I've been following her for a while; she was one of those people who didn't have the typical look of a chef or a chef-owner and has redefined how certain types of American food are looked at. That's something that I want to do with West African food over here in the UK. I want to get people looking at it in a different light and make people see it as something that's doable and something that's accessible."