The lack of representation of women on Masterchef: The Professionals reflects a profession that is still wholly dominated by men and, in the words of Michel Roux Jr, suffers from many kitchens being ‘stuck in the dark ages’ towards female chefs. It’s a profession that’s unlikely to change its stripes overnight, but at least the presenters of the show are so aware of this situation, and so ready for it to change.
All I can say regarding the staggering lack of female representation on this and previous cycles of Masterchef The Professionals is: thank goodness for Monica Galetti a saying I would like to catch on regarding most contexts. The programme’s creators made such an excellent decision when they upgraded her role for this series as she brings real standards, the most useful and honest of critiques, and the kind of comedic timing cumbersome Gregg Wallace and loveably awkward Michel Roux could only dream of. As Guardian TV writer Stuart Heritage so correctly pointed out, she was ‘the real breakout star’ of this series. And unlike so many women who have made it to the top, Monica doesn’t deny the existence of the glass ceiling think Hilary Devey or worse, actively pull the ladder up from beneath her *cough* Margaret Thatcher *cough*.
Despite being an excellent female voice in the series, Monica Galetti was one of a total of only six women I counted that we saw throughout the whole competition including Monica herself, four female contestants and a guest appearance from her boss Rachel Humprey, in comparison to 28 male contestants, two male judges, four male guest chefs whose kitchens the finalists visited, and countless tuxedoes who strutted about in true chef-y dick-measuring style during the show’s penultimate, climactic episode. Now don’t get me wrong, I adore Masterchef, I watch every series avidly, and especially enjoy the Professional edition, but the lack of women featured, especially in the Professional edition, bothered me and is frankly too stark not to comment on.
Masterchef claims their selection process is entirely based on merit, and I have no reason not to believe this, since the lack of women in the show has been emphasised in previous years, but I find it really difficult to accept there were not more talented female chefs in the UK applying for the competition. The absence of women in the show was perhaps starker this series since there was only one woman per heat of eight contestants, a quite incredible sex ratio, and worryingly indicative of the chef industry today. Whilst I think Masterchef has a responsibility to make representation fairer so more women at least mathematically stand a chance to get through to the later stages, the lack of applications by women they received speaks volumes about the state of professional kitchens today.
Now with its sixth series behind it I’ve religiously watched the last four, Masterchef: The Professionals is a brilliant show for many reasons. It is warmer and funnier than its Celebrity and Amateur counterparts, partly due to the lack of Torode and the presence of Roux and Galetti, I think, more gripping, and the standard of cooking makes astonishing viewing. It is also a programme that commands a lot of respect from the chef world, with guest chefs in the UK and abroad making appearances to train and test the cuisine of the contestants. For me the lack of gender representation was starkest in the penultimate episode, when the three finalists cooked for some of the most renowned chefs in the country, and the only female I could see on the screen was Rachel Humprey, the head chef from Le Gavroche. The male bravado was palpable, and having worked as a waitress in several restaurants before, it’s a kind of testosterone-fueled environment I recognise and is I think quite specific to professional kitchens.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Monica Galetti was asked if she felt protective of women on the show, who were still clearly in the minority.
Yes, if a woman does well, I’m really happy; but if they mess up I’ll be just as hard as if they were a boy. I can’t take sides. Not unless she were my sister. She’d win.
This is fair enough in my eyes: feminism shouldn’t and truly cannot come about by prioritising women deliberately: that does both aspiring women, and the established women like Monica, no favours in the long term. It is not what most women who value independence and ambition want, but what they do want is fair opportunity, which professional kitchens at present do not provide, and so consequently a show about professional chefs necessarily suffers from a lack of female contestants. However, once the few women are in the programme, for me as a viewer and clearly for Monica and Michel as judges, they’re fair game: it’s purely about talent what is it about Masterchef that turns viewers, including myself, into sudden culinary connoisseurs? And in that respect, the Masterchef judges were totally fair, the few female contestants there deserved to go out, but meant none of the four even made it to the semi-final.
It’s not just Monica Galetti who provides a fresh, feminist perspective on the problems for women in the industry and express a willingness for change. If anything, even more vocal about this issue is renowned 2-Michelin Star chef Michel Roux Junior. I was most impressed with Michel Roux when I watched The Chef’s Protege on the BBC earlier this year, and he excelled not only as the best teacher of the three mentors by miles, but also taught the only female finalist. Even more refreshingly, there was no trace whatsoever of him treating her ‘like a girl’: he treated her like a chef. Despite coming from an established chef legacy dominated by the men of the family, Michel Roux Jr. clearly views female chefs on an even keel, defending this series in an article in The Telegraph by saying the lack of women in the final was down to chance, not a gender-related difference in ability. He correctly points out that out of the six seasons, two have been won by women, last year Keri Moss was joint winner, and in 2010 Claire Lara who I adored took the title. If I’m honest, I’d be wary of most other white, middle-aged male top chefs I can recognise my own prejudices, people, who suggested the Masterchef selection process was fair to women, but from the infinitely likeable Michel Roux Jr I’m happy to accept this: he’s earned the right to judge when women are being treated fairly as his restaurant, Le Gavroche, is a kitchen run by and a restaurant largely hosted by women just have a look at his refreshing Staff list. But whilst he maintains that Masterchef represents women fairly, he identified a wider problem in his industry, that of an anti-female stance in many top kitchens:
That’s totally wrong. Each kitchen is different and each restaurant is run in a different way, but there certainly should be more women in the kitchen. There are still unfortunately some places that are living in the Dark Ages and think the kitchen is a male bastion.
I just hope that when female chefs watch Masterchef: The Professionals and see how underrepresented their sex is in a competition to prove themselves top of a vocation that is notoriously machismic it makes them more determined to succeed and prove themselves than feel intimidated. In an excellent feature on Monica Galetti that appeared in The Guardian the other day in their ‘Women In Leadership’ series, the sous chef and parent explained that it was a particularly difficult profession for women due to its all-consuming, competitive nature and they felt they had to choose work over family funny how this doesn’t seem to ever be a choice male chefs need to grapple with. When asked if she ever felt outnumbered in such a male-dominated industry, she replied: ‘If you’ve got a chef’s jacket on then it’s fair game and it’s all out there for anyone to get.’
As much as Monica’s words are inspiring, there doesn’t just seem to be an issue with female chefs not applying for Professional Masterchef, but women being able to crack into the cooking industry in general. Renowned British chef Michael Caines gave an impassioned talk in which he identified that the macho culture behind chefs needs to end and that talent should be valued over what is seen as a traditional male role, making the point:
Some of the discriminatory practices that hinder the progress of female chefs don’t belong in the 21st century workplace and should not be tolerated.
I remember clearly - mostly in my nightmares - when the ever-chilling Marcus Wareing was a guest chef one episode of Masterchef’s last professional season, and in his talking head segment wore the assertion he doesn’t have time to spend with his family almost as a badge of honour. If a female chef with a family was to say the same thing, proudly or otherwise, she would undoubtedly be deemed selfish. This goes further when we look at chefs like Gordon Ramsay, a hugely successful brand, whose misogynistic attitude just watch an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where the proprietor or chef is a woman extends to the obvious belief that the domain of the male chef is the professional kitchen, and the domain of the kitchen at home is the female cook, a point made effectively and profitably by Tana Ramsay’s family-oriented cook books. It’s classic public vs domestic sphere, and it just shouldn’t exist today. There isn’t equal treatment of women amongst chefs, and I’d go so far to say that professional kitchens are an exaggerated, and almost unapologetic example, of discriminating against women. Professional kitchens should not be exempt from the fight to redress women’s lack of rights in the workplace.
According to the Female Chefs’ Development Programme website, just 20% of professional chefs in the UK are women. This 1 in 5 ratio is still awful and needs desperate remedying, but the 1 in 8 ratio represented in Masterchef: The Professionals, which surely is the ideal platform for enthusiastic women to demonstrate that their skills deserve to be considered as much as men’s, is saddening. Over the years, with rising numbers of young women in catering colleges training to be chefs, I’d like to see a surge in ambitious women vying for the curly ‘M’ trophy I love so well, and not have to groan whenever I see a heat of talented male chefs storming towards a camera, and only one talented female chef striding alongside, and certainly not behind, them.