First published on 5 Apr 2011. Updated on 5 Apr 2011.
If you were pushed to name famous Australian women in chef-land, you'd probably think Christine Manfield or Kylie Kwong - great chefs, both. But there's a new push of Sydney women chefs who are coming to the fore. O Tama Carey, head chef of Berta (17-19 Alberta St, Sydney) and formerly of Billy Kwong, is part of the movement towards fine casual dining. She also ran several guerrilla dining events with her contemporary Hamish Ingham of Bar H fame. Jo Ward and Claire van Vuuren, both ex-Claude's chefs (another all-woman kitchen, run by Chui Lee Luk), work the burners at Newtown Hotspot, Bloodwood (416 King St, Newtown) - like Berta, a 2010 Time Out Food Awards winner. Lauren Murdoch runs Felix (320 George St, Sydney), one of the busiest bistros in the city, doing over 190 covers a night.
Every chef interviewed for this story said the same thing: they will equal anything a man does in the kitchen. "You have to be able to cane the men. It's a hard job, and you have to relinquish some of your femininity because it just doesn't belong here," says Analiese Gregory, executive sous chef at Quay (Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks). Bistrode's head chef Annemarie Rodrigo agrees. "I'll always tee up to whatever a man does in the kitchen. I'm never shy of that. In the industry you just have to match whatever anybody else does."
Bistrode (478 Bourke St, Surry Hills), if you haven't visited it for a while, is now staffed entirely by women, from the person polishing the cutlery to the kitchen-hand washing the plates and peeling the carrots. It wasn't deliberate, but turned out to be a happy accident. The kitchen is run by Jane Strode and Annemarie Rodrigo. Since Jane's husband and business partner Jeremy Strode left to open Bistrode CBD they've had several guys trial but none have worked out. "They couldn't hack it," says Rodrigo, who has been cooking at Bistrode for two years. "For this kitchen, it works for it to be all-girl. It's fun." Rodrigo, whose résumé includes the now defunct Astral and award-winning London restaurant the Ledbury, has always enjoyed working alongside men. "This is my first time working in an all-female restaurant. It has its ups and downs, but we work together."
So why has the restaurant game been male-dominated for so long? Gregory believes it's because many women leave to start families or find the hours too demanding. "It is sad when you look around," she says, "and there are a lot of female apprentices everywhere but there aren't many females at the top end of the industry." Jane Strode says it's all about circumstance. "I think I'm just lucky. I've got loads of support from my family, plus we live upstairs from the restaurant - I can put the baby to sleep in the bar while I work."
Lauren Murdoch, however, doesn't like to draw a line between men and women in the kitchen. "I've never thought of myself as a female chef. I've been female my whole life. I don't feel like I'm working with a disability or half a leg because I'm a woman."