Women in Hospitality: Australia’s Leading Female Chefs

When it comes to female chefs in Australia, there’s much to recognise, admire and celebrate. And here at Quisine, we’re especially keen to toast the women thriving in the nation’s competitive hospitality scene.

“To me, [being a woman] means there is no restrictions on how I want to define myself. I can be powerful, worthy and independent; but I hope that one day gender is completely irrelevant all together.”

Dorothy Lee, chef and restaurant owner at Hartsyard in Sydney

Dorothy Lee at the bar in Hartsyard, Newton. Source: Steven Woodburn

A wider look at gender parity

Before we celebrate the success of Australian female chefs, let’s take a step back and look at the current status quo of gender parity.

From the get-go, it’s important to note that improving this isn’t just about closing Australia’s gender pay gap, where on average men are paid 14% more than women.

It’s also about building equal gender representation, both in workplaces and throughout media coverage. A better balance in the workplace would leave to more collaboration, understanding, wellbeing and long-term rewards.

This is something especially important in industries traditionally dominated by men, the hospo scene being a prime example. Because while the tide is slowly changing, the tale of gender in professional kitchens is still shadowed by stereotypes and unbalanced opportunities.

#EachforEqual is the campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2020. Source: Shutterstock

Women in hospitality

While the domestic kitchen has long been associated with women, the professional kitchen is traditionally been seen as a male-dominated arena. Reasons like long hours, a demanding work environment and high-pressure leadership roles have contributed to this prejudice.

You can look at the number of Michelin-starred female chefs in the world as a case in point. In France, only 16 out of 621 starred restaurants are led by women, meanwhile in Germany the stat stands at 9 out of 300 restaurants. Things fare better in Italy, with 45 out of 367 Michelin restaurants having a female head chef.

A bit closer to home, the Good Food Guide for 2020 tells a similar story. The number of hatted restaurants led by female chefs sits at 23 out of 290 restaurants, which is roughly 9%. Improvements, however, are happening.

Whether it’s butchers like Luci Kington or brewers like Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen from Two Birds Brewing, old-school stereotypes are being quashed by countless success stories. It’s clear women in the industry are making strides, leaping on opportunities and paving the way more than ever.

Female chefs in Australia

To get some first-hand perspective on the subject we sat down with Dorothy Lee, co-owner and co-chef of Hartsyard in Newtown, Sydney.

We also picked out a handful of other leading Australian female chefs to spotlight, all talented women making waves in their respective states. Yet it’s safe to assume these women are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to female powerhouses in Aussie’s hospitality scene.

Dorothy Lee

Having always loved cooking, Lee was first inspired to become a professional chef 10 years ago after moving to Australia from Hong Kong. The country’s strong food culture and fresh, rare produce opened her eyes to new methods of cooking, giving her the freedom to combine different cultures and new flavours into her food.

First starting out as a pastry apprentice at InterContinental Sydney, Lee really honed her skills working at some of the city’s leading restaurants. We’re talking stints at the original Hartsyard, one-hatted Ms.G’s in Potts Point and two-hatted Momofuku Seiobo in Pyrmont.

Lee busy during a shift at Hartsyard. Source: Quandoo

“These places did not only let me develop as a cook, but made me discover my commitments and dedications to the hospitality industry.”

Dorothy Lee, Hartsyard

As for now, Lee is establishing herself as both chef and restaurant owner at Hartsyard, a modern Australian eatery in Newtown, ever since December 2018.

Her and partner Jarrod Walsh are collaborating to create a welcoming space for people to dine on seasonal produce, celebrate diverse flavours and enjoy the intimacy of contemporary eating. For her insights on women working within Australia’s hospo industry, tune in below.

Hartsyard is a modern Australian restaurant in the heart of Newtown. Source: Quandoo

At age 28, you’re already running your own restaurant. Do you consider yourself a successful woman?

Success comes in different forms; I definitely still feel like I have so much to learn and experience to truly be successful in my own eyes. However, there are things that I am proud of, like running my own restaurant with my partner Jarrod Walsh, and having the opportunity to work with some of the most successful people in this industry and to have them as mentors.

The hospitality business is often seen as a male-dominated industry. What’s your opinion on the matter?

I think it’s slowly changing, as I can see a lot more women chefs emerging and I am glad to see the change. The old stereotype of being a chef – long hours, the heat, a harsh environment – may contribute to the fact that it’s often seen as a male-dominated industry, but our whole industry is evolving. People treat each other with more respect in the kitchen now and there are more and more women in hospitality that get recognised.

High-quality, seasonal dishes are the speciality at Hartsyard. Source: Quandoo

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman during your career so far?

To me, the reality of not being as physically strong as a man and getting targeted at that frustrates me the most. Being a chef often requires heavy lifting and I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask for help in order to prevent injuries. Asking for help should not be labelled as a “woman” thing.

Do you feel there’s more opportunities for female chefs and restaurateurs than before?

You are almost guaranteed to see at least two female chefs in reputable restaurants in Sydney. It’s definitely because there’s more opportunities for us than before. It’s such a common thing now for women to be in a professional kitchen. People do not filter resumes based on gender anymore.

What keeps you passionate about your work at Hartsyard?

Customer feedback, fresh and rare produce, all of our lovely suppliers and friends I’ve made along the way. They all contribute to keeping me passionate about the industry that I love.

Danielle Alvarez

One of Australia’s leading chefs, Danielle Alvarez is the mastermind behind the farm-to-table dining on offer at two-hatted Fred’s in Sydney, New South Wales. What’s great about Fred’s is that diners can see Alvarez in full cooking mode thanks to the restaurant’s open kitchen.

Alanna Sapwell

Head chef at one-hatted ARC Dining in Brisbane, Queensland, Alanna Sapwell is proving both a leader in the kitchen and the wider industry. Her high-quality cooking is all about fresh flavours and sustainability.

Jo Barrett

Jo Barrett is establishing herself as one of Australia’s most exciting talents right now and is co-executive chef at Oakridge Winery’s one-hatted restaurant in Yarra Valley, Victoria. Harbouring culinary talent in many ways, her pastries are particularly on point.

Melissa Palinkas

Awarded 2019 Chef of the Year by The West Australian Good Food Guide, Melissa Palinkas is a prime example of a dedicated and passionate professional. She’s head chef and co-owner at one-hatted Young George and executive chef at Ethos Deli, both in Perth. Palinkas shows a particular mastery in house-made charcuterie, among many other talents.

Karena Armstrong

One-hatted Salopian Inn is all about celebrating the regional produce of wider McLaren Vale in South Australia, with head chef Karena Armstrong taking pride in cooking delicious Asian fusion cuisine driven by only local and seasonal ingredients. She’s not only passionate, but also immensely creative.

Federica Andrisani

Flying the flag for Tasmania is Federica Andrisani, co-owner and co-head chef of two-hatted Fico in Hobart. With Italian roots, Andrisani skilfully blends fine dining with the welcoming nature of a bistro.

If you’re interested in reading more about women in hospitality, you can also check out Quisine articles on female chefs in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Italy and Germany.