Features

London’s latest wave of female-led restaurants

Five chefs leading the way with new restaurant projects in London speak about the plans they have in store, the challenges that female chefs still face and their hopes that greater visibility will inspire a new and diverse generation of culinary talent

Words by Fiona Sims

adriana cavita, dipna anand and ezra muslu
London chefs Adriana Cavita, Dipna Anand and Esra Muslu (left to right)

There’s a shift going on in restaurant kitchens around the world. Female chefs – many of whom are heading up some of London’s best restaurants – are inspiring others to follow suit, breaking up the boy’s club dynamic. These gender-balanced kitchens are more open and inclusive, and are attracting women in numbers never seen before, with some predicting that women could potentially outnumber men at the pass in the next couple of years.

Indeed, the number of female chefs in the UK has risen by a third since 2016, with one in four chefs now female, the biggest increase in the last five years, says the Office of National Statistics. Thanks must go in large part to trailblazing women who are at the vanguard of this shift, the likes of Angela Hartnett, Skye Gyngell, Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze, who have been forging ahead in London and making their mark in a veritable vacuum.

To change the perception of female chefs we need greater visibility

‘There are not enough of us around and representation matters,’ says one of these trailblazers, Asma Khan, the chef-owner of Covent Garden restaurant Darjeeling Express. ‘The perception remains for many people that a chef is a white guy in a white chef’s coat with a bad attitude. To change the perception that female chefs are very much part of hospitality we need greater visibility, which is the biggest challenge,’ she adds.

The obstacles for women are still there, of course, from female chefs having to work that bit harder to prove themselves, to the continuing struggles to juggle family life in the profession. But this improving gender balance in the professional kitchen is making for a happier and more supportive workplace, agree most.

darjeeling express team
'We need greater visibility': Asma Kahn (centre-right) with her team at Darjeeling Express

Cue the next generation of female chefs bursting onto the capital’s restaurant scene, bringing a creative energy that is encouraging another wave of young women wanting to cook. ‘They’ve been waiting in the wings, honing their skills backstage, learning from mentors, and waiting for their time to shine,’ says restaurant PR Gemma Bell, who represents a number of female chefs. ‘Now they’re here, and London’s restaurant scene is more exciting as a result,’ she adds.

Here, we speak to five of London’s rising stars and leading names about their new restaurants, about the challenges they still face, and about how they’re hoping to help pave the way for even more diversity in London’s kitchens – which can only make the restaurant experience even better for us, their customers.

chantelle nicholson

Chantelle Nicholson

Chef-proprietor, Apricity, opening spring 2022

A trained lawyer, the New Zealand-born chef was a recipient of a Green Michelin Star last year while running her now-closed and much-loved Covent Garden restaurant Tredwells. But she’ll be back in the spring with a new venture, Apricity on Duke Street, St James’s. It promises to focus on ‘people, planet and purpose,’ with the aim of creating something as circular as possible while championing British produce.

What are the challenges still faced by female chefs?

‘I think there’s still an unconscious bias towards female chefs – you only need to look at mainstream media to see that it’s dominated by the same faces. There’s also the challenge of having empathy and caring about what we do and the people we work with – I think this is heightened for women. But at the end of the day, if you do want kids and a family life, it’s much harder to achieve as a female chef.’

What plans do you have for your kitchen?

‘The kitchen only works well with a great team of people on board. The intention is to inspire and motivate the team to achieve their own goals, as well as the shared goals of the restaurant. I also want us to challenge ourselves when it comes to achieving the best we can in terms of our inputs and outputs: for example, how we connect with great suppliers and support them, and how we minimise the outputs that are not so great, such as waste and carbon.’

adriana cavita

Adriana Cavita

Chef-proprietor, Cavita, opening Spring 2022

Mexico-born Cavita became a chef thanks to her grandmother, who owned a street food business selling quesadillas, tacos, and tamales. Her first proper job, at 19, was at Pujol in Mexico City (currently ranked at number nine in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list), cooking in the evenings while she studied gastronomy at the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana. It was learning about Mexico’s food history that set her on the path she follows today, honing her technique while cooking over charcoal. Cavita has since worked with some of the greats – including Ferran Adrià at El Bulli – who have helped to shape her approach.

Why London, and why now?

‘I arrived in London about six years ago to open a Mexican restaurant called Peyotito, and since then I’ve fallen in love with this city. I’ve always wanted to open my own restaurant. I’ve worked at some of the finest restaurants in the world but my time with the Cocineras Tradicionales (the women that guard and pass on the traditional recipes and cooking techniques in rural Mexico) has given me the passion to share Mexican food and culture here in London.’

food at cavita
The much-anticipated Cavita will open in Marylebone later this year

What are the challenges still faced by female chefs?

‘It’s now more common to have female chefs leading kitchens and creating beautiful food, but you have to work harder than a male chef to prove yourself. Having a private life can be very challenging, too, as the job demands a lot of compromise.

‘There should be a balance of men and women in a kitchen. Though the single most important thing I need in my kitchen, more than anything else, is a strong family feeling.’

ezra muslu

Esra Muslu

Chef-proprietor, Zahter

After finishing her culinary studies in Australia, Istanbul-born Muslu spent nearly two decades working as a chef in many high-profile restaurants, which led to her opening four popular restaurants in Istanbul. In 2017, she moved to London, where she was head chef of Ottolenghi Spitalfields, knowing that one day she would open her own restaurant here. Zahter, her ‘love letter to Turkey’, opened near London’s Carnaby Street in early December 2021.

What are the challenges still faced by female chefs?

‘When I started out in the kitchens of restaurants in Istanbul 18 years ago, you rarely saw a female chef. The working environments for a young female were tough. Unfortunately, this is still the case, and professional kitchens are still very male-dominated. And like any other industry, female chefs face challenges from low pay and work-life balance, to gender politics and sexual harassment. However, with female head chefs leading by example and with male chefs as our allies, hopefully we will get there.

‘Creating a safe space where women can show their creativity and freely celebrate their voice will inspire and encourage more women into the industry.’

chefs at zahter
Esra Muslu (centre) with her team at Zahter, Soho, where she aims to create a safe space for women to 'show their creativity and freely celebrate their voice'

What plans do you have for your kitchen?

‘Turkish cuisine is a fantastic celebration of big flavours and plenty of spice, and I want to share my experience and passion with young chefs, business owners and food enthusiasts. I love teaching and mentoring young chefs – hopefully more young female chefs – so we fitted out the second floor of Zahter with this in mind. It’s a private event space with its own small kitchen and bar, which I will use for cooking classes and events so I can share Turkish culinary culture and techniques.’

dipna anand

Dipna Anand

Chef-proprietor, Dipna Anand at Somerset House

London-born Anand opened her restaurant at Somerset House at the end of November 2021 as a celebration of her years of experience cooking authentic Indian food, which has won her a shelfful of awards and numerous TV appearances, including her own show, Dip In Kitchen. Anand is also the co-owner of her family’s Brilliant restaurant in Southall, which was opened by her father 41 years ago, and is where she runs specialist Indian cookery courses.

What are the positives for creating female-led spaces in the restaurant world?

‘There really should be equal opportunities for everyone in the restaurant world – whether male or female. While every space holds certain challenges, which I’ve definitely experienced first-hand being an Indian female chef in the industry, female-led spaces can act as a huge source of inspiration for people working their way up, opening doors in so many ways.’

dishes at dipna anand's restaurant
Desserts at Dipna Anand at Somerset House: 'Having a restaurant in London is really is a dream come true'

Why London, why now?

‘My restaurant at Somerset House was proposed during lockdown and at the time it really felt like the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a fantastic opportunity and the next step for my career. London is my city, I was born here, and I live here now – it’s such a huge hub of food and culture, so having a restaurant here really is a dream come true.’ 

sally abe

Sally Abé

Executive chef, Conrad London St James

Abé joined the 256-bedroom luxury hotel, Conrad London, as consultant chef in 2020, having spent four years cooking at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms pub in Fulham. The hotel has four new food-and-drink concepts operating under her guidance, including the Blue Boar Pub, but it’s at modern British fine-dining restaurant The Pem, where she shines, with help from her all-female team.

What are the challenges still faced by female chefs?

‘I think there is still a preconception that women aren’t always at the top of their game, and when you say you’re a chef, people assume you’re a pastry chef or something that’s seen as more of a feminine role in the professional kitchen. Kitchens are still male-dominated, and a heavily masculine environment is often intimidating to aspiring female chefs – it’s one of the things that spurred me on to instigate changes in the industry and make kitchens a more approachable place to work for women, and for everyone in the industry.’

conrad st james
The Pem restaurant, where Abé's female-led team operates

What are the positives for creating female-led spaces in the restaurant world?

‘I think it’s important in terms of representation. I always say, you can’t be what you can’t see. So, it’s important for people who have a strong platform to use that platform to encourage and promote other women. My senior team in the kitchen and front of house are all exceptional women and I think it’s important to show other women just how brilliantly we perform in hospitality.’

What does the future hold in store for the capital with regards to female chefs? 

‘There’s a growing and very impressive network of female chefs and restaurateurs in London right now. It’s so exciting to see up-and-coming women succeed in hospitality, operate their own restaurants as well as head up some of the most prestigious kitchens in the world. My hope is that their kitchens become springboards and open up even more opportunities for the next generation of female chefs.’