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Kitchen Confidential: Rachel Humphrey on Women in the Kitchen


Elizabeth Lloyd-Owen08 March 2017

When Rachel Humphrey was appointed head chef at Le Gavroche in 2008, aged 29 she was the first female to assume the role in the restaurant's history. This International Women’s Day, as we celebrate Rachel’s remarkable achievements we wonder why there are not more women in the kitchen.

Nearly a decade later, Rachel is now not alone in running a prestigious restaurant kitchen (you can probably name several high-profile female chefs) but statistics suggest career advancement remains skewed in favour of men; while the number of chefs in the UK overall rose in 2016, numbers of female chefs actually declined; currently fewer than one fifth are women; Alain Roux recently declared his disappointment at the absence of women in the finals of the 2017 Roux Scholarship.

The stereotype of the macho chef persists, and for a young woman embarking on a career, it can be very lonely being the only female in a kitchen. Then there is the more mundane issue of finding chef's whites that fit.

Chefs of Gavroche! @f_diego @gf_80 & Rachel

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Rachel agrees that the path for women isn't always smooth but points out that men face many of the same obstacles. Along with low starting pay, “The hours are anti-social for everybody and the work is physically demanding. But you get used to it. And it can be just as hard for some men to lift those big cooking pots”. It takes resilience to survive and thrive.

And she has the same advice for both young women and men contemplating a career in the kitchen. Being a top chef takes “stamina, passion, singlemindedness, dedication and hard graft. Find a mentor and listen to and learn from them; show them respect and don't rock the boat in their kitchen.” Says Rachel, "You have to roll with the punches." And for women there are now plenty of successful role models.

Her calm demeanour, quiet humour and self-effacing modesty about her achievements conceal a core of inner steel and determination that has helped her to scale the heights of her profession.

Big egos don’t belong in Rachel’s kitchen; a cool head and teamwork are what count whether you are cooking morale-boosting meals for an RAF mess in the Falklands or Michelin-starred food in Mayfair.

Smiling Chefs!

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Rachel was bitten by the cooking bug early; by the age of eight, she had her heart set on being a chef. Growing up in the 1980s, Keith Floyd and the Roux brothers were on the telly, but the explosion in TV cooking programmes that made household names of a slew of celebrity chefs was still to come. She has happy memories of her mother and grandma's excellent home cooking, of their Sunday roasts, delicious puddings and birthday cakes, especially. Her parents encouraged her interest in food, let her experiment in the kitchen and took her to all the food shows and exhibitions.

Her first direct encounter with classic French cuisine was via a book of Anton Mosimann recipes, “I attempted a mille-feuille”, Rachel remembers “and I was really pleased with the result. My mum probably remembers all the pots and pans I used.”

Bypassing catering college her next step was an apprenticeship. She had the good fortune to be accepted at Le Gavroche where the Roux family were generous and conscientious mentors encouraging Rachel to develop her talent and experiment. Rachel's steady rise through the ranks was interrupted only when she left the restaurant for three years to serve as a chef in the RAF. She picked up some useful management skills cooking for hundreds of men and women and, stationed in the remote South Atlantic, learnt how to do fine dining in the officers mess using “a lot of preserved foods”.

Her training at Le Gavroche has imbued her cooking with respect for the traditions of the restaurant. She likes the dishes on the menu to evolve without losing sight of their origins. Rachel says her job is to be “consistent, replicating each dish perfectly night after night whether the customer is eating it for the first time or the 100th time".

For Rachel, "It's not the place to do cutting edge, of-the-moment food," instead, her talent lies in the impeccable interpretation of classic dishes that respect local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients.

@rjhumphrey getting her game game on at the award winning @cactuskitchens

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When it comes to Cooking the Roux Way, Rachel wants to take the fear out of cooking and share fundamental skills that can be used at home. "There's no point in demonstrating 'Chef-y' recipes that students never try again." A hollandaise or reduction might sound scary, but Rachel is there to show you that it is not.

Rachel's former colleague Monica Galetti has just opened her own restaurant; while Rachel doesn't rule out having her own establishment one day, for now, she is content and considers herself privileged to be head chef in one of London’s top restaurants.

WANT TO JOIN RACHEL FOR COOKING THE ROUX WAY?

Spend the day with Rachel Humphrey and learn to cook the Roux Way. Focusing on seasonal menus master new skills and techniques and get a taste of the professional kitchen. 

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