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

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

The city is currently hailing 150 years of #StrongMCRWomen, proudly proclaimed on a banner adorning the Town Hall.

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

This list of special commemorations, exhibitions and installations celebrating women really does seem to be pretty long.

But where is everyone going to head to after the events popping up 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 from Manchester excelling in their fields.

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

I sought out the stories of 3 women, each at the forefront of the North West’s culinary scene, 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.

Nisha brought her booming franchise to Manchester’s Corn Exchange in 2015 – the franchise is now in 4 locations across the UK, with a further 2 opening this year.

Jamaican-born Chevonesse Smith began her kitchen career at just 17. Only 7 years later, Chevonesse earned her place as the Sous Chef at Alston Bar and Beef, ranked 3rd out of Manchester’s 1,841 restaurants on TripAdvisor with a glowing 5-star record.

Finally, Jayne Castle, General Manager of the city’s cocktail favourite, the Cosy Club. Jayne 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 3 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, now 23, put it bluntly: “It’s tough to be a woman in the kitchen”.

She continued, drawing from recent personal experiences: “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 Katona was formerly a child protection barrister before investing everything into her passion for Indian cuisine. However, Nisha 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.”

Upon 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 recent industry event, where even today she was only one of six female owners present: “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 Nisha found the lack of role models she could look to as a woman wanting to start her own restaurant from scratch.

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

She continued: “You don’t see other women doing it, so you don’t see it demonstrated.”

Rather, “you see Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White”, and this only shows hopeful chefs and owners that “the restaurant kitchen is a psychopathic place.” Somewhere “not fit for humans, never mind women.”

Looking at the UK’s culture more broadly, where audiences are more used to seeing female TV chefs in their homes such as Nigella Lawson or Delia Smith, Nisha explained: “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.”

Cold hard facts only add further proof to the pudding. In 2017, the Office of National Statistics published a report stating that whilst there are over 284,000 professional chefs in the UK, only 67,000 are women.

Making up only a miniscule 24% of the total number of chefs in the country, it hardly seems women are being welcomed into the space.

But make no mistake: these barriers are slowly but surely being broken. And the women of Manchester are helping to turn the tide.

Chevonesse said: “We’ve come a long way.” However, she 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 Castle has witnessed more drastic evolutions in catering and hospitality: “At one point, one of my previous companies only had 1 male General Manager!”

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

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

Nisha described her methods: “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.”

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

Her “zero-tolerance” policy on shouting in the kitchen is a real step-change in the “aggressive, abrasive language” which has often been the case, where “head chefs are not used to taking orders from women, generally.”  

Nisha stated: “The truth is, to be a female owner is no different to being a male owner”. But she 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.

She carried on: “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 has 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.

So it is perhaps summarised best by Nisha: “For women, the thing is to know that you can be successful by absolutely just being yourself.”

Related Articles