Updated: Thursday, 21st June 2018 @ 2:16pm

'There aren't images of women in chef's whites in kitchens': Meet three Manchester culinary stars paving the way for change

'There aren't images of women in chef's whites in kitchens': Meet three Manchester culinary stars paving the way for change

| By Helena Vesty

Manchester is leading the charge this year for International Women’s Day.

The city is currently celebrating 150 years of #StrongMCRWomen, proclaimed on a banner which adorns the Town Hall.

To honour the centenary of the Representation of the People's Act, where some women first achieved the vote, an 8ft bronze statue of Moss Side-native, Emmeline Pankhurst, is to be unveiled in St Peter’s Square by the end of the year.

And where is everyone going to head to after the exhibitions and events popping up around the area to welcome the big day? Maybe to the Curry Mile, Chinatown or Northern Quarter for some hard-earned snacks?

Yes, there is an incredible list of women hailing from Manchester and excelling in their fields.

But for a city which boasts some of the most varied and exciting eateries in the country, the women shaping the way we eat here are long overdue their moment.

MM sought out the stories of three women, each at the forefront of the North West's culinary scene, who are making their influence felt by creating some of the most unique dining experiences in the country. 

Nisha Katona, the founder of Mowgli Street Food and two-time author, was born in Ormskirk and brought her booming franchise to Manchester's Corn Exchange in 2015.

She now operates four restaurants (two in Liverpool, one in Manchester and one in Birmingham) with several more opening later this year.

Chevonesse Smith is Jamaican-born and began her kitchen career at just 17.

Only a few years later, she earned her place as the Sous Chef at Alston Bar and Beef, ranked third out of Manchester's 1,841 restaurants on TripAdvisor with a glowing five-star record.

Finally, Jayne Castle, general manager of the city’s cocktail favourite, the Cosy Club. She oversaw the successful opening of the first branch of the restaurant in the North.

However, in an industry which prides itself on diversity, playing host to more styles of cuisine than can be counted, all three women had a sadly similar report: a strong female presence across the restaurant business remains fundamentally lacking.

Both Chevonesse and Jayne spoke of the underrepresentation and the impact it had on them as young women looking to progress in their careers.

Chevonesse, 23, put it bluntly: “It’s tough to be a woman in the kitchen.

“I was the only woman in the kitchen for a while. Men have dominated the food industry, as a woman you notice.”


Jayne agreed, describing the difficult environment during the early stages of her life in the business.

“People expected ‘shirt and trousers’ to be in charge and I always got a second look when I was introduced as ‘the Boss’.” 

Nisha, formerly a child protection barrister before investing everything in her passion for Indian cuisine, emphasised that the challenge of carving out your place as a woman in a historically male arena, extends far beyond the reaches of the food industry.

At the start of her 20 years at the Bar, she remembers being “one of a handful of women then”.

The Head of Chambers even sent a note to her Pupil Master telling her not to come back “because she’s female and Asian, and the Bar is no place for someone like that.”

Yet, after moving into the culinary world, she found it was much the same.

“There are so few women in this industry that are actually owners. Again, you’re one of the minority.”

She recalled a bizarre moment at a recent industry event, where she was only one of six female owners.

“I was holding a glass of wine and someone tried to take it off me because he thought I was a waitress!”

One of the greatest hurdles she found was, as a woman wanting to start her own restaurant from scratch, the lack of role models.

“You don’t see other women doing it, so you don’t see it demonstrated. You see Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White.”

But this, Nisha added, only leads hopeful chefs and owners to believe that “the restaurant kitchen is a psychopathic place […] not fit for humans, never mind women.

“There just aren’t images of women in chef’s whites in kitchens.

“As children, as a nation, we just haven’t seen it. We don’t even recognise those images as something that is possible.”

Instead, she would go after her day in court and stand in commercial kitchens to watch how restaurants run in practice.


Cold hard facts only add further proof to the pudding. Last year, The Independent reported that out of the 250,000 professional chefs in the UK, a miniscule 18.5% were women.

But make no mistake: these barriers are slowly but surely being broken. The women of Manchester’s restaurant industry are turning the tide for the region, and indeed, the country.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Chevonesse, who remained tentative as she explained that as a young woman, it is quite unusual for her to be fulfilling a leadership position with a surprising amount of freedom, over such a large brigade of chefs.


In contrast, Jayne has witnessed more even drastic evolutions in catering and hospitality.

“At one point, one of my previous companies only had one male General Manager!”

Maybe most ground-breaking is Nisha’s method for changing the threatening feel of kitchens.

“I try to encourage as many female chefs, as many female head chefs as I can.

“It’s very important for our female chefs to have that kind of sorority.”

Not only are the recipes and dishes at the restaurant handed down from Nisha’s mother and grandmother, but through her ownership of Mowgli, she has set a set a precedent across the board with what she calls a “maternal management model”.

The strategy also strives to create a more nurturing, educational and “loving environment” in her restaurant kitchens.

“Head chefs are not used to taking orders from women, generally,” she said, explaining the reasons for her zero-tolerance policy on shouting in the kitchen, a real step-change in the “aggressive, abrasive language” which has often been the case until now.

“The truth is, to be a female owner is no different to being a male owner,” she added.

But Nisha believes that women in particular aren’t afraid of holding a more emotionally-driven ethos, which can ultimately make for a happier workplace, and of course, better food.

“Work has to be a place of solace, it has to be somewhere you want to go.

“It just helps to have both sexes to represent every facet of ways of building business.”

In a similar way, Chevonesse always relished the challenge of creating a wide range of menu options to allow as much inclusion as possible for those with different dietary requirements, such as vegetarian and vegan substitutes.

This is something she now channels in Manchester, by foraging for fresh ingredients and going to the farm personally to ensure her vision is realised.

These inspiring women highlighted time and again – through their anecdotes – that staying true to themselves remains at the very centre of their careers.

This was perhaps summarised best by Nisha.

“For women, the thing is to know that you can be successful by absolutely just being yourself.”

Main image courtesy of Chevonesse Smith via Instagram, with thanks.