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Kitchen Wars: Who's in charge?

Eurest | Team interviews |  25 June 2013

lady chef

IT’S ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT MYSTERIES. SINCE THE KITCHEN WAS INVENTED, IT’S BEEN LABELLED AS A WOMAN’S DOMAIN. YET FOR SOME REASON, MOST PROFESSIONAL CHEFS ARE MEN, AND DESPITE A GROWING NUMBER OF WOMEN IN THE PROFESSION IT’S STILL GENERALLY SEEN AS A BLOKE THING.

Nobody’s disputing that men make brilliant chefs —we’re proud to have some of the very best of them here at Eurest. But increasingly, female talent is coming to the fore, so we thought it was time to get a female chef’s perspective.

One of Eurest’s most successful chefs is award-winning Gemma Evans, Group Executive Chef at Virgin Media since January after roles at Xerox and Centrica. And while she’s made rapid career progression as a chef, Gemma’s original vision was very different. “I wanted to be a special needs teacher; it was my Mum who wanted to be a chef. And as it turned out, we swapped! And we’re both very glad we did.”

It’s been an unusual path to success. After training for three years at Westminster Kingsway College, Gemma moved to Spain to work in a German restaurant aged just 18 — without speaking a word of either language.

She returned to the UK to run two bistros single handedly — which sounds a lot but is actually nothing compared to the sheer scope of her responsibility at Virgin, where she heads up the culinary teams across 17 sites, stretching from Glasgow down to Langley,  and ranging from head office sites to contact centres.

“It’s hugely demanding and the offering varies from the more everyday stuff to top level stuff like fine dining. We’re going through a massive revamp at the moment, refitting eight of the units, meeting designers, overseeing the updating of the kitchens. My job is so much more than just being a chef now!”

Delivering Virgin’s core menus into the business, from hospitality through to their main offering, introducing new concepts — it all falls to Gemma. “Virgin’s culture is aspirational, with funky, colourful, modern sites — and a huge emphasis on teambuilding. We bring all that to the table.”

Gemma has proved her talent, carefully treading her way through the challenge of providing a bespoke offer on the large foodservice provider scale. “We’ve done lots of customer satisfaction analysis and we’re driving it through now. These days in foodservice, people know what they want and it’s our job to give them that but also offer them new things too. Food is like fashion, you have to keep up with the changing trends.”

Not bad at all for a 25 year old. Are people surprised at her youth when they meet her? “Yes — I suppose with me being female as well, sometimes when I meet people for the first time I have to fight my corner a bit more. I sometimes joke about keeping the boys in line, but everything’s taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve developed very broad shoulders in this role.”

She tells a story about a time when her then regional manager introduced her to a new site. “The client looked me up and down and said: “You don’t even look old enough to be here.” On her regional manager’s advice, Gemma then sat down with the client to talk through her vast experience — and at the end the client said: “It’s an honour to have you here.”

The client, by the way, was a woman.

For the most part though, gender is an irrelevance for Gemma. In her current role she sometimes misses the banter and teamwork of the kitchen, but she enjoys driving around the country, meeting teams in other units. “I can meet up to 30 people in a day, talk about things I love and getting people excited and interested in food and how we deliver it.”

There’s nothing like the success of winning global culinary awards either. Gemma — who names her mum as her hero — brought gold home for Britain in The World Culinary Olympics in 2012, in a field of 22 men. And there are more awards in the pipeline.

Would she encourage young girls to follow her into the profession? “Absolutely. Follow your dream and go for it. You need a thick skin in this game, and you need to hold your own in the kitchen — but the rewards are massive. So if you have the passion, you can do anything or go anywhere!” 

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