Today, of the UK’s 187,000 chefs, only 37,000 are women, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. In the upper echelons of the industry, among the executives and head chefs, women are even more thinly spread.
Wendy Jackson was taken under the wing of the famous Roux brothers when she first started out in the industry.
Having trained at Cassio Campus, in Hertfordshire, she then went to work at the Roux patisserie in London.
She says: “It was Michel Roux senior who gave me the most support and encouragement and I was very lucky to receive such a good grounding in the industry.
“The Roux brothers were always very equal when it came to employing women, but not all restaurants were like that then.”
Wendy, 40, who teaches hospitality and catering at South Essex College, later went to the Bafta Restaurant and then to the Mayfair Hotel, as well as a spell working in Australia.
The stress of the kitchen meant Wendy, from Westcliff, had to change how she worked.
She says: “In some ways you have to become part of a very macho environment. There’s rude things said and swearing and that’s how it is.
“What people sometimes forget is that at Michelin level it is the food that is the main focus. All the pressure and bravado is there to enable the high standard of food to go out – which it always did.”
Wendy sometimes found out the hard way how tough working in a kitchen could be.
She says: “When you are told they want a carrot cut three millimetres thick they mean three millimetres, or if they want a square, they want a perfect square.
“Once I made a thousand volau- vents and rolled them in the pastry the wrong way. They came out oval instead of a circle and every single one was thrown away and I started again.”
The work also took its toll on Wendy’s health.
Wendy says: “It’s very physically demanding and takes its toll on your body. I would get in work for 6am and leave at 11pm and sometimes work through the night.
“You never complained. Once I chopped a bit of my knuckle off and I remember being shouted at because I was bleeding everywhere.
I just wrapped it up and finished what I was doing.”
Although she loved her job, Wendy is more focused on passing on her skills to students at the college.
Wendy says: “It is great to be able to teach people how to cook and see them improve.”
SARAH Norman has been head chef at the Milsoms Hotel, in Dedham, for ten years.
She started out on a youth training scheme at the Pier Hotel, in Harwich, and went on to study catering at the Colchester Institute.
Living and working in London, Sarah was a chef at the Intercontinental, then at Marks Tey Hotel and later worked for several years at Harrods.
"It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point and I’m now very lucky to have such a great team to work with.”
Early on, Sarah had a strong enthusiasm for cooking.
“While at college I was chosen to go to Switzerland for a year as part of the course,” she says. “I worked at the Da Capo, in Zurich, and it was a very exciting time for me, learning about the local cuisine.
“In my day, if you saw an avocado in the UK you would go, ‘wow, how exotic’. But in Zurich, there was so much interesting produce – it really sparked my interest.”
Working in professional kitchens from a young age meant Sarah grew up fast.
Sarah says: “I matured because I was in an adult environment and had to learn quickly.
It is always a stressful environment, but you learn to just get on with it.”
After being involved in a car accident 11 years ago, in which she lost her fiance, Sarah threw herself into cooking as a way of coping.
Sarah, from Harwich, admits: “I just threw myself into work at Harrods as a way to get on with my life.
“Working in a restaurant does take over your life sometimes, though, and I have sacrificed having a family, which is something I have to live with.
“But this industry is all or nothing.”
Sarah, head chef alongside Ben Rush, relishes being able to work in such a stunning location, in Constable Country.
She says: “It is fantastic to be able to use the freshest produce, sourced locally, and to work at a very high standard of cooking – it’s what drives me.”
Visit www.milsomhotels.com for details.
With its traditionally macho environment and brutally long hours, it may not come as a surprise to learn only one in five British chefs are women.
SOUTH Essex College student Olayimka Agoro, 41, is married and has four children.
She juggles working nights in catering for a supermarket with studying during the day.
Olayimka says: “I work from 10pm to 4am during the evening and then I am back in college by 9am in the morning.
“I want to get my qualifications so I can improve and go higher up in the industry. Also, I get a huge amount of pleasure from seeing people enjoy my cooking.”
Sarah Bromley, 17, from Wickford, is not fazed by working in the industry.
She says: “I actually enjoy the pressure of working in a kitchen.
It doesn’t bother me at all.
“At school I didn’t like many subjects, apart from cookery. I excelled at that and it made me really passionate about wanting to be a chef.”
Mirriem Van-Hinton, from Thorpe Bay, says: “I was a secretary for many years and when it came to finding a job recently I decided I wanted to do something I really enjoy. I worked in a care home kitchen recently where I was the only person in the kitchen. They all wanted their food by 5pm so I had to make sure I met the deadlines. It was a great learning curve for me.”