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The girls in the kitchen

In an Xl-sized kitchen of much clatter and laughter, two striking women stand out. I meet Constanze Fürst and Franziska Maderecker during my fascinating week inside the kitchen of a roaringly popular restaurant in Hamburg. Striking not just for their beauty, but also for the fact that they are the only two women in a kitchen staff of 15. This, I am told without any discomfiture, is the industry average, possibly even better than the average. It always is an unreasonably unbalanced ratio between women and men. 

Both Constanze and Franziska work with the quiet good humour and assurance of the superbly competent. Constanze looks after the dessert station of the 160-seater restaurant, while Franziska does a bit of everything: one day, the meats, the next day, soup, and when Constanze is away, the desserts. It is a happy, cheerful kitchen, and to my eyes, the boys treated them very much as equals. (I have to admit here that I spent only a week there, and am completely unaware of previous tensions, if any.) Their boss, the head chef Michael Wolf, a slightly swaggering but nonetheless endearing sort, speaks of them with uncharacteristic pride in his start-and-stop English.”They’re very good. It’s not an easy job, cooking for so many people [250-odd] in such a quick time (sic). They always deliver.” But still, he maintains, two women is about the right number. “Perhaps, there is room for one more. Too many would spoil the balance,” he says, as if the kitchen were a broth with too much vinegar. “It would become too soft.”

Constanze Fürst is responsible for all the desserts in a large 160-seater restaurant

Why the difference?

In a sense, Constanze agrees. “It would be annoying,” she says in fluent English, “if there were more women. They have this way of working that I don’t like, talking, bitching. But a kitchen full of men is too aggressive and uncontrollable. You need a couple of women to bring things to line. One woman to four men is the right ratio. It was like that when I went to culinary school too. There were five of us in a class of 25.”

Earlier, Micke had told me a similar story: that there were seven  women in his batch of 30 in culinary school. Only three of those women graduated. So the imbalance in numbers starts right from the training academy. If there are fewer culinary school graduates, it follows that there will be fewer recruits in the kitchen.

Tim Mälzer, a well-known television cooking show host and the owner of the restaurant, disagrees. He says that the numbers (of men and women) in culinary school are roughly equal. The difference surfaces after graduation because women are disinclined to work in the professional kitchen, with its long work hours and tough regime. He feels, though, that women make the better cooks.

I ask Constanze why things are this way. “The grind. Twelve hour work days don’t leave time for much else. Anything else, actually. You also need power to operate the machinery in a professional kitchen. There’s the heavy stuff you have to carry: 40 thick china plates at one go, trays full of frying pans. It’s real hard work. But you get used to it,” she smiles.

Could it also be that maternity leave weighs heavy on employers’ minds? “Yes, I think so,” says Constanze, her face creasing with apprehension. “I mean, we get maternity leave due to us by law of course, and most restaurants follow the regulations. But it could be a reason.”

The dessert station posting

Constanze is somewhat similar to the stereotype of the woman in the kitchen: she looks after patisserie. In other words, she is the pastry chef or the dessert station in-charge. She is also the sort of woman who looks well put together even in the all-encompassing chef’s white jacket and apron. Who will always run her hands through her hair when she sees you with a camera. And she nearly always asks to check a photo or video after it’s done to check how she looks. Pastry is typically considered a woman’s domain. It’s too dainty for the men. It’s also seen as restricting. Hagen, who was head chef of the restaurant before and now is getting ready to open his own chic little number called Artisan now, feels pastry doesn’t allow you to be creative. Micke says he liked doing pastry when he was younger, but now he thinks vegetables and meat are the real thing. Even the celebrity chef Tim Malzer doesn’t enjoy pastry as much as the other stuff. Happily, for Constanze though, she was not forced into pastry: she chose it herself. In this restaurant, Micke places staffers in departments of their choice, at least initially. He points out, though, that women are made to work on desserts in most other places.

Franziska Maderecker works on all stations in the restaurant kitchen, but her heart belongs to meat.

The girl who flips for meat

The reserved, statuesque Franziska does her desserts quite competently but her heart belongs to meat. When she told Micke this, he was “sceptical” by his own admission. “But she’s good,” he nods satisfied, “she’s very good.” I have to agree with him. The first day I was in the kitchen, I stopped for a couple of seconds watching Franziska at the grille. A woman handling chunks of meat, especially with Franziska’s ease, can have that effect I suppose. At the moment though, she works on all stations, and she is quite happy doing that. She is also, I sense, somewhat used to being an anomaly. At her last job, she was the only woman in a staff of seven at a restaurant. There too, she did everything, including the meat, earning many a neat compliment.

She knows she’s good, but she also knows she’s lucky. “At my last job, I had been at that restaurant for nine years, working from school. They knew me, so I got the job, and I could do what I enjoyed. Here, [meaning at this job] they are cool, they let you be.”

The maternity leave question

She is a little startled when I ask her whether maternity leave is one of the issues that prevents women from being recruited. “I am not pregnant,” she says, stumbling in English in haste, “no plan for a long time.” When I explain what I mean, she listens thoughtfully and says it could well be a reason. I wonder, though, why the usual unflappable calm slipped a bit at the mention of pregnancy.

Micke, however, answers the maternity leave question without a trace of embarrassment. “It can be a reason, though I try hard not to let it influence my decision. But the main reason I don’t like too many women in the kitchen is that you can’t talk openly. You have to worry about how to say things, and I don’t like that.”

Nonetheless, four new apprentices joined on one of the last days I was in the kitchen, all of them girls. Constanze was happy to get some help at her station, but Franziska, to my surprise, made a ball of her fist and said, “Girl power.”

The interviews for this story were conducted in English, which is not the first language of the kitchen staff. That said, their English was far better than this writer’s German. 

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