Reviewing the Whitechapel Gallery’s Dining Rooms last weekend, to which Gordon Ramsay protégée, Angela Hartnett, has recently lent her expertise, led me to thinking of the discrepancy between women in the kitchen and celebrity women chefs. Where are they? Or is it simply that behind every Heston, Jamie, Hugh (probably not Nigel) there is a great woman?
It is apparent that Angela had to prove herself under Gordon’s tutelage in a way that no man would have had to, speaking to The Telegraph she explains that: “I really had to show Gordon I could last in the kitchen like men could.” Apparently the kitchen blokes took bets on her not lasting even one day. She lasted just fine, now with an MBE and Michelin star to her name and in a position to break free from Ramsay’s influence by taking over Murano as her own, with plans to open other eateries in the offing.
Much is made of Hartnett’s single status, she herself admits that, “you have no time for a relationship, for a family.” Considering her own close-knit family, with Italian grandparents, the fact that she lives in a house with her sister, owned by her brother and has filled her cook book Cucina with family photos, not much relating to cookery, you’d imagine this to be a big sacrifice on her part. Yet the media manages to turn hard work and self-sacrifice on the part of a woman into anti-maternal, spinster-esque qualities, rather than the heroic depiction of our male chefs, who seem to have gone all Anglo-Saxon on the world, each fighting their own glory battles to save this, that, the fish and his school kids.
Women celebrity chefs, on the other hand, are either ex-models (don’t get me started on Sophie Dahl) fluffing up some cupcakes, rubbing themselves up against the fridge at night or slagged off for being ‘too male’ and taking a stance on fox hunting and even criticised for the lack of femininity deemed necessary to make it as a TV chef. Such Victorian, post-feminist media inconsistencies that sexualize and at the same time bemoan a lack of ‘sexiness’ mean that the best women chefs and foodies remain on the sidelines or confined to our newspaper columns: River Café’s Ruth Rogers, Delia Smith, Clarissa Dickson Wright (who was also a barrister by the way and the youngest woman ever to be called to the Bar) and Mary Berry to name just a few. Whenever I’m in a true kitchen pickle, such as when the farmer next door turns up with a leg of venison, it is to the wise words of Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking that I turn, not Gordon, or Jamie, never Heston (but possibly Hugh).
So it was a real treat to sit down to a simple, top quality menu in the Whitechapel Gallery last Saturday and savour a menu devised, advised and supervised by Angela Hartnett. It was unfussy, not too many choices, but ticked the offal (kidneys), unloved veg (cauliflower soup), unusual cuts (pig cheek) and indulgence boxes (chocolate pot) in a well-rounded, confident celebration of British with a twist of Italian that didn’t need to shout, show off, swear or change the world. And that is how I like my food. If only we could see a bit more of it on the telly.