women

What Happened When London’s Best Female Chefs Hosted an International Women’s Day Dinner

Margot Henderson, Freddie Janssen, Olia Hercules, and more cooked in celebration of the women who inspire their food.

by Johanna Derry
09 March 2017, 1:53pm

What happens when eight London chefs, who happen to be women, get together to host a dinner? Five courses of delicious food, of course.

What else did you expect? A fight? A protest? Tears and tantrums?

There are still gender stereotypes to dispel, especially in the world of food. And since yesterday was International Women's Day, what better way to do it than with good food, served with a wry grin and a side of two fingers up to the patriarchy? 

Bonny Porter, founder of the, on this occasion, ironically named Soho restaurant, Balls and Company, invited Sandia Chang, Roz Bado, Freddie Janssen, Olia Hercules, Emily Dobbs, Tania Steytler, and Margot Henderson to celebrate the women who inspire their cooking.

Left to right, London chefs Roz Bado, Sandia Chang, Olia Hercules, Freddie Janssen, and Bonny Porter. All photos by the author.

There's no one fixed story for any of these women. Bado is a baker, Steytler is head chef at Danish restaurant Snaps and Rye, Hercules is the the author of Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond, Janssen runs taco pop ups on the side of her day job doing marketing for the Michelin-starred Lyle's, Dobbs has a Sri Lankan street food stand, Henderson runs secret Shoreditch restaurant Rochelle Canteen, and Chang co-founded gourmet hot dog company Bubbledogs.

"The influence of women in food is so diverse," says Porter. She explains that the medley of artichokes she served was in honour of her mother, who persisted in trying to get her to eat vegetables—and eventually won.

Bonny Porter's artichoke medley.

"It's better than it was, but cheffing is still very much a man's world and this is a good excuse to celebrate women in and through food," Porter adds. 

There's definitely a celebratory vibe to this evening's dinner. The restaurant is packed and the kitchen is filled with women, each chef taking it in turns to pull their dishes together and get them out onto the pass, before sitting around the table with a glass of wine. The conversation is fast and fascinating, witty, relaxed, and easy.

Sandia Chang.

"In some ways, I find it upsetting that we still have to make a fuss," says Janssen. "People ask all the time, 'Where are the women in food?' They're here! They're all around me. Maybe we're not in the 'boys' club' trawling the country doing events. Maybe we're shy. Maybe we're just busy! What we're doing isn't different to men and I feel like it should be silly at this point in time to be talking about gender."

So, slightly tongue in cheek, Janssen made pink mole tacos and sprinkled them with glitter as her contribution to the night's menu.

Freddie Janssen's pink mole tacos.

"If you want me to be girly, let's do it," she says with a shrug. "Bring on the rainbows!'

"There is a myth that women are only interested in making pastry and the pretty things," Dobbs chips in.

"I mean, I don't know how it used to be, if it was really aggressive," says Bado. "Now I think we're all in it because we really really love food, whether we're men or women. But then I am a female pastry chef so …"

Emily Dobbs.

They laugh. There's no way Bado is a lightweight. She has been baking from 5 AM to prepare Moldovan flatbreads to accompany a green borsch with sorrel made by Hercules, as well as her signature Blackheath wild sourdough.

"It's a weird thing because at home, women are supposed to be the better cooks," says Hercules. The borsch she made was to a recipe from her mother, whose birthday it is today, and who had helped Hercules to prep.

"In restaurant kitchens, it still seems to be a male dominated thing but I hope that soon becomes redundant."

Yet as Hercules and Janssen are showing, there are more ways into a job in food than the traditional kitchen route. Women are shaking up the restaurant industry, finding ways to make it work for them.

While Henderson waits to plate up her dish of braised squid and fennel (a nod to Marcella Hazan, who introduced many Brits and Americans to Italian food), I ask her if things have changed over her years as a chef.

Olia Hercules and Roz Bado.

"I've been around the block," she says. "When I started, I didn't even think about the fact that I was a woman. I worked hard, I enjoyed it, I was passionate about learning, and about getting out to earn some money. Things are encouraging now. But there's still not enough women."

Henderson thinks nights like this one still matter and Bado agrees: "If I were me seven years ago at a night like this, I'd be so inspired."

"We want to encourage other women to step out, because it's really fun!" adds Dobbs.

So, do any of these female chefs ever think about the fact that they're women when they're at work in the kitchens?

"To be honest," says Chang, "I look after the menu at our restaurant, I look after the wine list, I look after the front of house, I look after my husband. I just get my head down! I'm too busy to think about being a 'woman chef.'"

Sandia Chang's potstickers.

"When chefs make comments like, 'Women haven't got enough oomph in their doodas, they've not got the balls to do it,' I want to tell them why," says Henderson. "It's because a lot of the time women are looking after the men!"

"If people continue to talk about women chefs or female chefs then it will continue to exist," agrees Steytler. "But if you just call us chefs, then it won't."

So I won't. Both Chang and Steytler made dishes from their childhoods: crab potstickers just like Chang's mum used to make and Cornish saffron bread and butter pudding in honour of Steytler's grandmother—a beautiful, pillowy sweet way to finish things off. 

The women gather at the table for photographs, arms round shoulders, laughing—pleased that they've pulled off such a successful dinner in such a small space. Porter is clearly delighted that her efforts to bring everyone together have come good.

Olia Hercules' green borsch with sorrel.

"To get a group of women who are leaders in food together and give them a day where they can do whatever they want to do, that's what celebrating International Women's Day should be," she says. "You're never going to get an all-woman kitchen that's perfect any more than you'll get an all-men one that's perfect. You need a mixture. So, let's get some women in there and do things differently."

The end of the night booze is out, the hair is down, and no one can argue with toasting to that.