Women have been struggling for centuries with sexism. One of the most common misconceptions that women fought against was that a woman’s place is “in the kitchen”. And that is what makes Aida Shaaban’s struggle a bit ironic. Why? Because she’s facing obstacles in order to get into the kitchen, a restaurant’s kitchen, that is.
Aida has always had a passion for cooking and always wanted to be a chef. She worked hard to realize her dream, taking a cooking course at the Culinary Training Center (CTC), while caring for her 8-month-old daughter and working a full-time teaching job. She optimistically pushed through, keeping her chin up, despite the bullying she faced even at the Culinary Academy, and eventually graduated with a distinction degree. She even took a few extra cooking, food styling and food photography courses at the distinguished Le Cordon Blue in London.
You can say that she was first exposed to sexism when her talent started gaining the attention of her teachers. Women were outnumbered by men in the Academy – 6 to 18 – which increased the bullying. “You being a female makes them consider you weaker physically and less creative. You’re weaker in every aspect, you’re not as qualified enough to work in this place,” Aida says.
She recalls a competition held at the academy, in which her Chef had chosen her to compete. “That was a turning point. After the competition, it was hell for me. There were five of us competing against another five, and the top three were females”, Aida continues, “I would get garlic cloves, they’d get stolen. I would have to put a big piece of dough in my apron’s pocket because I knew someone would steal it if I left it at the station, but I would still continue if it was stolen, I’d just make another one.”
During one of the competitions, her entry was sabotaged by one of her colleagues. She had made a dish and when she went to the bathroom, she came back to find someone had put it in the oven and burnt it. “I decided that I’m going to do something even better. So, I made a shrimp casserole and glazed carrots. After the chef tasted everything he stood up and started applauding me and said ‘this girl will go places.’”
When Aida graduated, she realized that kitchens in restaurants and hotels were no better. She applied for a position in a big hotel in Cairo, which had a one year program where chefs would work each month on a different thing; a month of prepping salad, a month of butchery, etc…The HR director there was interviewing her when he broached the topic of the caliber of people she’ll work with in the kitchen. “He said ‘Aida you do understand that the people working here are of a different caliber’, the type of people who inherited this job from their parents out of necessity rather than interest or passion. That she would pose a threat to them as an educated woman, who studied abroad and is coming to take their jobs at a higher salary. ‘That goes without saying, I don’t want to work with a fork and knife, I don’t want a silver spoon in my mouth,’” Aida explains, as she wanted a job that she earned, not one that she got through her connections.
To make matters worse, the working schedule given to women, especially mothers, are intentionally long and inconvenient to discourage them from taking the job. “I was told that I would have to work for 2 months, from 3pm until 1am, and I’d get one day off a week. I replied that as a mother, I can do the shift until 1am for 3-4 days a week, and the other 2-3 days I would work until 8pm.” Aida says. They grudgingly accepted, but warned her that it would be held against her in the kitchen. Furthermore, sexism in male-dominated hotel restaurant kitchens often takes a much uglier turn in the form of sexual harassment towards female chefs, which hand in hand with the bullying.
You might be wondering what happens to women who do decide to go through this in spite of knowing they’ll be bullied. Well, one of Aida’s friends did just that. “She told me that once she has proven herself they said ‘from now on, we’re going to consider you one of us, a male chef,’” Aida says. So even when trying to be accepting, sexism just seems to linger between the lines of what is being said.
Some hotel managers take it one step further and explicitly state that they do not hire female chefs. Sometimes it is because they don’t want to deal with the potential inconvenience of women going on maternity leave; sometimes it just comes down to the resistance of the people in the kitchen themselves. At the end of the day, the result is the same.
Aida believes that people working in restaurant kitchens lack the passion for cooking and food. “To them it’s their job, their livelihood. They think that you, of course, won’t know better than them since they’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Aida says. But they still lack the necessary training, skill and knowledge required. She explains that cooking is really a science. She gives the example of how spices added at the beginning of the preparation of a dish can enhance the flavor more than towards the end of it. Furthermore, there are different cooking methods (dry, moist etc) and different cuts of meat that are specific to each cooking method.
She recalls a time when she was working in food consultancy, and after elaborately explaining a simple recipe to the chef, he got it wrong on the first order. This raises another issue in the restaurant business, which is the fact that sometimes due to male chefs’ competitiveness, the chef never tells his secrets. So, when he leaves, the food quality is compromised.
Now, hotel kitchens aren’t the only obstacle for Aida, there are also restaurants. Aida’s extensive network in the food industry includes many, many chefs. There are two alarming facts that she has come to terms with. The first is regarding female head chefs. “There are no female head chefs. You’ll find ones in small places, but if she goes elsewhere, they won’t hire her in a hotel or restaurant, even though I know her and she is amazing, she cures meat, she does awesome creative recipes.” Aida explains. The second alarming fact is that out of all the male head chefs she knows, only two hire female chefs!
Out of all the many chefs Aida has met through her work in the food industry, only Chef Mustafa El Refaei, Head Chef of Zooba, and Chef Wesam Massoud, restauranteur and host of the popular TV show Kitchen 101, hire women. “Once Chef Mustafa was talking with the men around that this discrimination against women in the kitchen should change. He swears by two girls who work with him and says they’re better and are more dedicated.” Aida recalls. “Chef Mustafa and Chef Wesam are so passionate about what they do to the extent that when they teach you, they teach you everything.” Aida says.
Keeping this in mind, we spoke to Chef Wesam about this, so we can get a better understanding of whether or not male chefs are aware of the sexism female chefs seem to be subjected to. “Absolutely. The restaurant business is very sexist, as a lot of businesses are in Egypt, but it’s not more sexist than it is outside of Egypt,” he says. When speaking about it, he addressed the issue clearly. “We want women in the kitchen, but not a restaurant kitchen.” He says. That being said, he does believe it will get better. “Some hotels started hiring women, and Zooba hires women,” he says, confirming what Aida had said earlier. As a chef, Wesam does believe in women’s capabilities. “Women are a lot more reliable than men, and less temperamental so they make less problems,” he concludes.
While the issue itself is infuriating, there’s a glimmer of hope thanks to women who refuse to be cast out of the business they know they can excel at like Aida, and men who continue to give their utmost support to them, like Wesam.
Aida is now looking into her options, considering television and radio related work, as well as starting a company with two chef friends of hers – one female and one male – that will offer many services from food consultancy to food products. She has trained Syrian women refugees through Fard Foundation by giving them a 3 month intensive cooking course and now they started their own catering company. She also teaches cooking classes for adults and high school kids.
At the moment, Aida is weighing her options and looking forward to the future. One of the things she stressed on the most, is her desire to see the restaurant business go forward in Egypt. “It takes knowledge that if the people inside the kitchen know, it will elevate the food to a whole new level. I just want them to accept the fact that there is knowledge involved,” she concludes.