Food News

Women’s work: how the hospitality industry can be better for women

On International Women’s Day, four women who work in food and drink share their war stories, tales of success, and hopes for the industry they love.

By Yvonne C Lam
Design by Laura Jacobs

Nina Huynh | chef at Yellow, Sydney

Nina "Teddie" Huynh is a rarity in the industry: she's a chef, and a single mum to an eight-year-old daughter. "I'm definitely a unicorn," she jokes.
Huynh is distinct in other ways too: she started her apprenticeship in her mid-20s (a later age than most) and blitzed her way through commercial-cooking school in two years (the industry-recognised TAFE qualifications typically take four years to complete). Then in 2017, after a one-month stage at Yellow, the Bentley Group's all-veg fine-dining restaurant in Sydney, she was offered a full-time chef position. "The day [then-head chef] Chris Benedet offered me the job [after dinner service], I just remember clutching the employment paperwork to my chest, walking the streets of Potts Point in a daze at 1am," she says.
Across Sydney and Blue Mountains kitchens, Huynh has never worked under a female head chef (though she's heard of the wonders of Poly – in the first year it was led by head chef Isabelle Caulfield, the kitchen was majority-staffed by women and the dry-store was uncharacteristically orderly). In the Bentley Group, where she also works at Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Cirrus, and Ria Pizza and Wine, she's often the only woman on the chef's line. Despite this, there was almost a 50-50 gender split in her TAFE courses.
"There's something interesting that happens with many women in hospitality," says Huynh. "Wherever I've gone, I've personally felt going into pastry was inevitable." She holds the utmost respect for pastry chefs, but still holds another, less comfortable feeling. "I had a deep curiosity about the hot line and grill section, but that was dominated by men."
Nina Huynh, chef at Yellow in Sydney. Photo: Ryan Peter
"Big dick energy" is endemic in the industry, but women show their strength in quieter, more dignified ways. "[Some men] just come in swinging and that's how they assert their dominance in the kitchen," says Huynh. "They look at me and think I'm gentle and small. People underestimate me, and I think that goes for a lot of women in the industry. I show strength in my own way."
A chef's life is not compatible with a single-parent's schedule, but the culture of long, gruelling hours is changing. At Yellow, there's flexibility. Chefs are given a mixture of daytime kitchen-prep shifts and dinner-service shifts. It's a gear shift from when Huynh first started in the industry when it was common to work through from 10am to 1am, day after day. She wonders how much talent the industry has lost over the years as a result. "I know plenty of chefs who've dedicated 10 years or more to the industry, and just because they wanted to start having kids, the industry was not willing to budge for them."
For now though Huynh is sticking to her guns, her graft, and her rigorous private and professional schedule. "I do the laundry. I buy the groceries. I clean the house. I make sure my daughter goes to school and her karate lessons. I read to her, I do homework with her. I make sure dinner's ready, the babysitter's there on time. And then I go to work."

Nornie Bero | chef-owner at Mabu Mabu, Melbourne

It could be because she's a woman or because she's an Indigenous person, either way people do a double take when they realise Nornie Bero is the chef and proprietor of Melbourne café Mabu Mabu. "I get hit with that double whammy [of being a woman of colour] sometimes, but I'm used to it now," she says.
You want to talk war stories? After 25 years in hospitality Bero has a few. "Coming up in this industry it was really hard to be a woman […] I've been spat on, stabbed." One time a male chef heated up the handle of a pan until it was scorching hot. An unaware Bero grabbed the pan, causing her hand to burn and blister. "But it was during service and I couldn't stop, so I had to tape a [cooling] bottle of water to my hand."
Bero, a Meriam woman of the Komet Tribe in the Torres Strait Islands, credits her father with helping her overcome these challenges. "He taught me to be resilient. It was my dream to [be a chef], and I wasn't going to let some macho man in the kitchen stop me from doing what I loved."
Nornie Bero, chef-owner of Melbourne's Mabu Mabu. Photo: Parker Blain
There are historic double-standards in the kitchen, says Bero. Men are automatically bestowed respect; women have to earn it. Men can air their grievances without judgement; women who do the same are "bitches".
It's the reason why Mabu Mabu is staffed entirely by women. It's not an anti-men stance, but a pro-women one in order to create a nurturing and supportive environment for the lesser-seen gender in hospitality. "I want to guide and empower more women to be successful, and to be leaders, in this industry," says Bero.
Still, women have to work doubly as hard to be noticed. Need proof? When contacted for this story, Bero is in the middle of Saturday lunch service – she simply slides in her earphones and conducts the phone interview while continuing her work in the kitchen. (At one point, a waiter interrupts the conversation to mention a diner's karkalla allergy.)
Bero lauds the ingenuity of industry women who've kept their businesses alive during the pandemic – she hopes to see this recognised more. "One day we'll wake up and see women can get us through the tough times and not just the good. It'll come in time," says Bero. "It is my firm belief that women will eventually rule the world. They just don't know it yet."

Suci Ida Bagus | front-of-house and marketing at Warung Agus, Melbourne

In a restaurant scene seemingly dominated by blockbuster venues backed by big money and male owners, Melbourne's Warung Agus is an anomaly. The Balinese restaurant, which has been around for 32 years, is run by three generations of women from the Ida Bagus family.
"The food industry has changed a lot since the restaurant started, and I don't see many family businesses who've lasted this amount of time," says Suci Ida Bagus, who runs the marketing and floor of the restaurant.
In the mid '80s Suci's father and mother, Agus and Mary, started a night-time Balinese pop-up eatery – a one-year-old Suci slept in a bassinet on the counter during service. In 1989, Agus and Mary established their bricks-and-mortar venue, with the family living above the restaurant, and Mary moving from the kitchen to front-of-house duties as the business grew.
About four years ago, Agus suddenly fell ill. Suci, who has a background in anthropology and marketing, returned to help the family business; sister Santhi, a pastry chef, stepped in to fill her father's shoes in the kitchen. "She had about a week to learn how to cook all his recipes. We just really threw her in the deep end," says Suci, whose 18-year-old niece and teenage daughter also work shifts at the restaurant.
The restaurant has changed to reflect the times – the white tablecloths and starched napkins, for example, have been binned in favour of bare wooden tables and bright paper serviettes. But the scene has changed too, with more and more Melbourne venues focused on alcohol, music and engineering a "vibe".
"What I love about Warung Agus is it's still really honest. It's an extension of who we are," says Suci. "A lot of customers say, 'It feels like I'm eating in someone's home'. You can't bottle that. You can't manufacture a feeling that's evolved over 32 years."
Three generations of the Ida Bagus family: (back row) Suci Ida Bagus, her daughter Lestari, and niece Setia; (front row) head chef Santhi Ida Bagus, co-owner Mary Ida Bagus, and Termana (Santhi's son). Photo: Molly Z
Restaurants like Warung Agus don't receive a lot of media attention. It's the sort of restaurant where the Ida Bagus family is less interested in creating a cult of personality, and more invested in cooking and serving good, "old school" Balinese food. (Nasi goreng is off the menu; nasi campur and babi guling are in.)
But reading food media, Suci sees a double standard in how men and women are portrayed. A male chef or restaurateur is lauded for his culinary or business skills alone, but a woman needs an added-value proposition to be recognised. At best she runs a social enterprise; at worst she's referred to as the partner or sidekick of a well-known man. "There's this expectation that as a woman, you have to be giving more," says Suci.
For Suci's part, she wants to see more stories of the industry's under-recognised talent: from the West Melbourne neighbourhood, there's Ruta Ukbagerish, the former chef-owner of Little Africa, and Shirley Lee of the now-closed The White Lotus. Her sister Santhi, too.
"[They're] extremely skilled and creative chefs who attract large, appreciative followings through their food, but I feel their businesses don't fit the template of food media's expectations," she says. "If the same people and places are repeatedly highlighted in food media it's difficult to ever achieve the visibility required to survive as a small business. I don't pretend to have any solutions, but the first step is acknowledging the issues."
There's change afoot, but the work is far from complete. It's one thing to see more recognition of women, it's another to see more women of colour, and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, in kitchens, running restaurants, and in the news. It's an intersectional issue where gender, race and class must all be considered. "In every industry – music, hospitality – there's a nepotism where the same people and groups [are elevated]. But unless you pull people from across these minority groups, there's still a lot of work to do."

Ella Stening | manager at Native Drops, Sydney

In 2018 Ella Stening had two formative wine-making experiences abroad – at Radford Dale winery in South Africa, and at Chavy-Chouet in Burgundy, France. Both experiences cemented her ambitions in the wine world; they also exposed her to the ugly side of the industry.
"When I was going to South Africa I was told to bite my tongue because I was going to hear some serious racism and sexism," she says. "But nothing really prepared me for what I experienced in Burgundy." (She stresses the racist and sexist comments did not happen at Chavy-Chouet, but more broadly across the industry in Burgundy.)
Like the restaurant industry, the wine world is awash with old money and tradition and as such, structural sexism is hard to shake. "It's certainly come leaps and bounds since the old days, but it certainly does exist," says Stening.
In modern Australia the gruelling nature of hospitality work, coupled with the free-flow of booze, creates a "clusterfuck" of negativity. In a social media post in January, Stening described the industry as one where young people are "underpaid, overworked, [and] cushioned with addictive substances and bad attitudes [...] you either form a Stockholm syndrome-like dependence on your employer and call it 'family' and you end up becoming what you were fed, or you get turned inside out and masticated."
It's often larger hospitality businesses with a sizable workforce that perpetuate this toxic culture, she says. And these deleterious conditions "100 per cent" stop women from thriving in the wine industry. That women are fed into its machine then spat out, dazed and confused, means the industry is bereft of female mentors to guide and support the next generation.
But things are slowly changing. Stening name-checks Coleman's Academy, Women in Hospitality's mentorship program, and Sommeliers Australia's working group on gender equality as signs the industry is addressing its gender problem. She credits Bridget Raffal – the former Sixpenny sommelier who made a point of expanding the restaurant's wine list to include more female winemakers – as a mentor too. "Men in the industry were able to teach me how to be a somm [...] But there are subtleties and intricacies of being a woman in hospitality that can only be taught by a woman."

Changing and challenging legacy attitudes is not easy. Stening is often criticised for going too hard on the industry and bad employers. "[As a woman], when you do speak out, you're mouthy or aggressive." The alternative, however, is no alternative at all. "The biggest criticism is: You shouldn't be causing waves. You have to remain objective. You have to be broad and accepting [of these attitudes] ... And I think, what if they're wrong?"
Is the battle worth it? Stening certainly thinks so. For all its faults, she sees the good in wine and hospitality: the warmth, the sharing and exchange of knowledge, the sense of community. "It's easier to be angry about these issues," she says. "But I'm trying to move past that and be a louder voice, to make things better. That's what my goal is."