Women grab the pan by the handle

Women grab the pan by the handle
  • Many female chefs have suffered from discrimination and sexist behaviour but have persevered and say things are gradually getting better

  • They are making names for themselves in the restaurant business, a traditionally masculine sector

She still remembers those days when she looked after her baby and cooked at the same time as if it were yesterday. Francisca Luque was only 15 when she got married and since then she has worked alongside her husband, Abilio Arteaga. Together, they opened Casa Abilio in Álora, which they have just handed down to their children.

“It's very hard work. It can be up to 20 hours at a time, there are no holidays, and then there is work to do at home because we don't stop when we leave the restaurant,” she says. Now, looking back, she realises the sacrifices they made, but they are proud of their legacy. Their son Abilio learned the trade almost as soon as he was born.

Women grab the pan by the handle


The kitchen was like his first school, as it was for other chefs whose names may be more familiar, such as Joan Roca, Dani García and David Muñoz. Many of them discovered cookery thanks to their mothers, who traditionally toiled over a hot stove and from whom they learned the skills that have made them famous.

But what about the women? There must be hundreds of successful female chefs but their names don't spring to mind because few women are well-known in the field of gastronomy. They are in the minority at conferences and competitions, in photo sessions, on the stage, at the peak of haute cuisine...

According to the Michelin Guide, only ten per cent of stars have been awarded to restaurants where women do the cooking. The percentage rises to 30 per cent in the Bib Gourmand category (restaurants with the best price-quality ratio recommended by the guide), but that is still a minority.


It was for this reason that Guadalupe Montejo decided to grab the frying pan by the handle and set up 'Amuco', the association of female chefs in Andalucía. She wanted to give visibility to women in this sector. She now does this not only via the association, but also through the international organisation 'Eurotoques'.

“There are a lot of women in this sector, but if they don't give us the opportunity we will still be stuck in the background,” warns Guadalupe, who believes men have too much ego and women lack security.

Reyna Traverso (of the Niña Bonita restaurant) agrees: “We have to show ourselves more. Those who have persevered and become known have given everything of themselves.” In and out of the home, in fact.

Women grab the pan by the handle


“I know a lot of women who have decided not to have children so they could progress in their profession,” says Guadalupe, who began the uphill struggle when she was dismissed by a company, Paradores Nacionales, when she was pregnant. She took them to court. They appealed but eventually the Supreme Court upheld the sentence in her favour and the company had to give her the job back. Nowadays she works in the Gibralfaro Parador, but she still believes that in general there is a lack of equality. That, however, can depend on the company. Puri Vallejo, sous chef at Esca Catering, says that in terms of working hours, she cannot complain and recognises that the business has smoothed the way for her at work and at home.

For Lourdes Muñoz, it all comes down to education. She now runs the Events section of the Dani García group, but has also worked front of house. She honed her skills in the Basque Country with Martín Berasategui and with Dani García at Tragabuches. “I was pregnant when Calima opened,” she says, but she was able to combine work and motherhood by taking her baby to work with her. So did her husband, who is in the same profession.


Things have begun to change. So much so, that in 2017 women occupied 52 per cent of jobs in the food and drink sector, according to the National Union of Statistics (INE), and 53.5 per cent in bars and restaurants, other than in administration or breakfast service, where many are employed.

Women nowadays are not only gaining ground in this field, but are climbing the ladder. For example, Meme Rodríguez (executive chef at the Hotel Benabola), Cristina Socorro, maître d' of the Hotel Molina Lario (the first woman to hold the post), Abril Chamorro (head chef at Dani García Restaurante), María Aguilar (maître d' of El Lago) and Eleni Manousou (executive chef at Nobu Marbella, the first one in the group).

Those are just some examples, because the list could be endless. It wasn't easy to arrange to bring them together for this article to mark International Women's Day, but it wasn't difficult to find them, nor did it take much effort: the names quickly came to mind. Of course, this is 2018. A few years ago it would have been a different story.

“Are you here to learn how to cook for your husband?” is just one of the questions Yolanda Hernández has been asked. She says doors have been closed to her because she was a woman. “I have been training students for 16 years and things nowadays are nothing like they were when I started. Sometimes there was only one girl,” says Yolanda, who is the head of cookery at the Sabor a Málaga catering college in Benahavís. Even her own family tried to discourage her. Why? “They thought it would be too hard for a female; they see us as more fragile than men,” she says.

“If you want something you have to fight for it, have confidence in yourself and not take any obstacle personally,” says Cristina Socorro, and she knows what she is talking about. She has spent more than half her life in this business, and admits that it was hard at the start. She has become used to being in a minority. She now leads an equal team. People have sometimes assumed that a woman can't be the boss, but it didn't put her off. “You have to believe in yourself, and that's all there is to it,” she says.

Guadalupe Montejo's feelings are very clear. “It's a matter of attitude. You mustn't be afraid. You have to take action, not just get used to something. It's not a case of showing that you are strong, it is a matter of showing your worth, that you have skills, you are professional, independently of whether you are male or female.” Has she had to face sexist comments and discrimination? “Yes, but you learn from everything, and you realise that these things make you stronger,” she says.

Cristina Cánovas agrees. She now runs the kitchen at Palodú, together with Diego Aguilar, but her career path hasn't been easy either and, despite her youth, she has faced difficult situations. “At one point I didn't even want to go to work,” she says, recalling her time at a hotel, when she was the only woman on the team and was made to wash the dishes. Little by little, though, things began to improve and her time at restaurants such as Tickets opened her eyes to a new reality.

“Now we are starting to gain ground and make a name for ourselves,” says Merche Caballero, the professional and personal partner of Michelin-starred Benito Gómez (Bardal). She runs Tragatá, their other business. When she started she was surrounded by men, but now women are in the majority in the kitchen and the restaurant.

Many of her female colleagues feel the same. Lourdes Luque, whose partner José Carlos García is another Michelin-starred chef, says she gets on well with the other women front of house, but she doesn't think there should be any distinction: “I appreciate people's experience and professionalism, not whether they are male or female,” she says.

“It's not a question of sex, but of personality,” says Belén Ramírez, who runs the Refectorium del Campanario with her sister, Curry. Belén, who feels privileged to be the daughter of José Ramírez (winner of the Andalusian Academy of Gastronomy prize 2018), has known the world of restaurants since childhood. “At Refectorium there always used to be more men on the staff, but now we're about half and half,” says Curry, sounding satisfied at what they have achieved.

“There is still a lot to do to achieve total equality,” warns Cati Schiff, whose surname is also very well-known in Malaga gastronomy. She inherited her vocation from her father Paul - the first chef in Andalucía to be awarded a Michelin star - and she spent the years when Marbella was blossoming in terms of gastronomy with La Hacienda restaurant. She has travelled, training in France, Belgium and Barcelona, has grown professionally among men and has no doubts about herself: “Attitude is fundamental. I have never thought I wasn't as good as they were”, she says.

Lourdes Muñoz says women have no need to think that. Her long professional experience has led her to conclude that nothing comes down to gender, nor should parity be forced. In her opinion, it is more a question of attitude and aptitude.

“I don't care whether, at a meeting of ten people, five of us are women. I believe things should be more natural and depend on worth, not on gender,” she says, stressing that in the Dani García group she is not the only woman to hold a responsible position; the team includes press officer Raquel Macías , head chef Abril Chamorro and Rais Estévez, head pastry chef at DG Restaurante. “I have always been treated equally, and they respect me as the boss,” she says, with a smile. Like Rais Estévez, she knows that “if your work is good, it shouldn't make any difference whether you are a man or a woman”, although, despite her youth, she has noticed some changes. When she was studying, girls were in the minority.

What happened, then? How did this change come about? “You have to show that you are strong and productive, and that in itself is hard, stressful work which requires many hours,” says Eleni Manousou. Through pure consistency and passion, this young Greek cook has become the first executive chef at the Nobu group. Now, working at Nobu Marbella, she is optimistic: “For many years, this has been a man's world but now it is becoming a woman's world as well. We are starting to see the equality and respect we deserve,” she says.

In fact in many cases nowadays women are in the majority. A visit to Palodú, Arte de Cozina or Messina, for example, is evidence of that. Due to certain circumstances, Charo Carmona surrounded herself with women when she set up her restaurant in Antequera. Today, with a Sol award in the Repsol Guide, she has the same philosophy: “They work very well and I like being with them, so why should I change that?” she says.

Pía Ninci feels the same. Front of house at the Michelin-starred Messina restaurant, all the staff are women. “I like the fact that we are known for that,” says this vivacious Argentinian. Rather than a marketing strategy, she believes in a personal touch. However, some people are still surprised to find all-women teams. They ask about the chef, and are taken aback when a woman comes out to greet them.

Vanessa Benisty, who is the niece of the late Albert Benisty, a legendary name in the gastronomy of Malaga, says society needs to become “more mentally in favour of equality”. Although it is hard to believe, many women in this sector still experience sexist behaviour occasionally.

“They have made me feel that, professionally, I am worth less than a man,” says Meme Rodríguez who, like Reyna Traverso and Puri Vallejo, still comes across situations in which she is treated differently.

Then there is the comment overheard by Marta Galdeano at a wine tasting: “Do women understand wine nowadays, then?” When it is pointed out that this woman is a sommelier and runs La Solana restaurant with the same passion as she did her career as a mountain engineer, their eyes glazed over and their ears went deaf again.

Cristina Domínguez (Caléndula) has lost count of the times she has been referred to as “the girl”, and Puri Morillo (Pastelería Daza), will never forget being ordered to make cold desserts and salads because that used to be a woman's role. Nor was that the only time she has been treated as inferior. “We are no different to men. There is no reason to distinguish between chefs and cooks, or treat us like Barbie dolls, as they do in the Pastry Queen trophy,” says this runner-up in the competition to find the Best Artisan Pastry Chef in Spain.

“Society doesn't exactly help us to progress,” says Puri Vallejo.

“Yes, there are barriers, but the same as there are in any other profession,” says Mayte Carreño. Few people can talk about women and gastronomy as she can. She is from Malaga, is the commercial director of the Michelin Guide and knows what it is like to work shoulder to shoulder with men. For her, it has never been a handicap, nor for María Schaller (Aire): “I have always been valued as a professional, not as a woman,” she says.

“It is no longer a man's world. That's in the past. It's often us women who put walls up. These days, if someone wants to do something, they do it,” says Charo Carmona.

Irene Garrido, head chef at KGB, agrees and says she has always been supported by male colleagues. “We ought to feel proud that the great chefs talk about learning everything from their mothers and their grandmothers,” she says. They have always been there, are still there today and will always be there in future.

How much does wood influence the maturing process of wine? The generally accepted view is that it gives a better taste, permits the slow oxidisation and assists malolactic fermentation that produces a smoother finish. French oak is the most expensive, and best for more delicate grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. American oak costs less, so the prudent winemaker usually elects a mixture of both. A good barrel, the optimum use of which is four years (but is usually extended to double that time) comes from an 80-year old tree from which only two barrels can be made, and needs between one and two years to be made ready to receive wine. Although it depends on production levels in any particular bodega, the average added cost of a good oak barrel is round 2.5 euros per bottle.

There are less expensive alternatives, mainly the use of oak chips introduced into stainless steel tanks in which the wine is maturing. Another method is placing oak planks inside old barrels to 'revitalise' them, but the use of oak sawdust is banned in most countries. These methods were developed in 'new world' winemaking countries such as Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the USA, to name a few. In Europe an irrational war against what is often considered to be unethical methods has been waged for years. Traditional winemakers would like all producers to be compelled to use oak barrels, but where is the sense in this if we are talking about economically priced 'barrel-aged' reds or 'barrel-fermented chardonnays'? I am unaware of any blind tasting that has identified the difference between oak barrel-aged reds and the same wine aged using oak chips. In fact there is a strong argument for the latter, as the maturing process can be fine-tuned by using more or less added oak, whereas once the young wine is put into an oak barrel, all that can be done is hope for a successful outcome. Anyway, as long as the wine tastes okay and suits our pocket, are we really worried how the oaky flavour is induced?