Leading Ladies: 10 of the UK’s most inspiring female chefs

Around the world, female chefs – many of whom head up some of the UK’s best restaurants – are proving to be an inspiration. Historically, male chefs have dominated the restaurant scene, with only 17 percent of chef positions in the UK held by women. However, more recently, these leading ladies are changing the perception of the kitchen as a boy’s club. Here are ten chefs helping to make restaurant kitchens more open and inclusive – regardless of gender.

Sally Abé (The Blue Boar)
Uninspired by an office job in her early working life, cheffing became a way out of mundanity for Sally Abé. Eventually becoming the cook behind perhaps London’s foremost gastropub, following a five-year stint at The Ledbury, it’s fair to say she’s never looked back. ‘Championing and empowering women in hospitality’ says her Instagram bio, and, with a ‘glamorous new restaurant inspired by pioneering women’ in the works, she’s certainly living up to it. Other projects are afoot – fans of the Harwood Arms will be pleased to find more fancy pub grub at the Blue Boar pub Sally is helping bring to life at the Conrad London St. James.

Angela Hartnett (Murano, Café Murano)
Not just one of the leading female chefs in the UK, Angela Hartnett is surely bordering on National Treasure status (indeed, having been awarded an MBE in 2007, the Queen thinks she’s there already). Angela opened Murano in 2008, then its more laid-back sister Café Murano – of which there are now three – in 2013. It’s the latter where her roots really shine, taking inspiration from her Italian grandmother to dish up the simple things, like lamb shoulder with Tuscan beans, or pumpkin tortelli with sage butter.

Ruth Rogers (The River Café)
Ruth partnered with fellow chef Rose Gray to open The River Café in 1987, in (what was then, at least) a quiet corner of West London. The restaurant quickly became a destination in itself, and a shining example of how to do something glamorous but also down to earth. Now, even in her 70s, not much gets in the way of Ruth. During the pandemic, she and her team pivoted the restaurant into an emergency pitstop shop of Italian staples like olive oil, Puglian tomatoes, pesto, wine, and borlotti beans. A supporter of Women for Refugee Women, Ruth was awarded a CBE for services to the culinary arts and charity in 2020.

Ravinder Bhogal (Jikoni)
Ravinder Bhogal’s Jikoni – ‘kitchen’ in Swahili – is where ingredients are transported to unfamiliar places or contexts. The restaurant’s signature dish, prawn toast Scotch egg with banana ketchup, and its spicy twist on shepherd’s pie are both good examples of this. A keen advocate of food without borders, and of people too – behind the pass, Ravinder wants her restaurant to be especially inclusive to working mothers.

Asma Khan (Darjeeling Express)
From hosting supper clubs at her London home to becoming the first UK chef to appear on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, such is the rise of Asma Khan. Along the way, her restaurant Darjeeling Express exposed something ashamedly missing from many other kitchens – an environment in which women actually want to work. Not your typical restaurateur, Asma often calls attention to food poverty and marginalised groups, whether in India or Britain. As such, Asma supports a whole range of initiatives, including starting up the Second Daughters Fund, a non-profit celebrating daughters born in India otherwise considered a burden to their families.

Clare Smyth (Core)
Clare Smyth is one of the world’s most recognised chefs. How has she done it? Partly due to a potato. Or, more accurately, her signature dish of Charlotte potato with dulse beurre blanc and trout and herring roe. But more importantly, and like her mantra, Clare is not so much a professional cook as someone who likes to take care of people – both her guests and her staff. 10 or 15 years ago there was a distinct lack of female mentors in the industry, but, with half of her kitchen and front-of-house female, she’s helping tip the balance for good.

Lisa Goodwin-Allen (Northcote)
At the age of twenty, Lisa Goodwin-Allen started out as a demi chef de partie at Northcote, 5 miles north of Blackburn. These days, she runs the joint, and her cooking style will be familiar to regular watchers of MasterChef and James Martin’s Saturday Morning. Through her food, she’s a keen ambassador of Lancashire, where she was born and bred. And having had such success in her career, wants to help others get there too, working with local schools, and charities like Children of the Mountain, to help kids reach their potential.

Chantelle Nicholson (Tredwells)
As her first solo cookbook, Planted, suggests, ex-lawyer Chantelle Nicholson has become a bit of a hero to sustainably-minded eaters. Her low-waste, veg-forward approach has helped her carve her own path, making Tredwells – formerly under Marcus Waring’s banner – into her own. Emerging from the pandemic, Chantelle hopes to roll out another Tredwells to follow her other project, Hackney restaurant and impromptu deli All’s Well.

Shauna Froydenlund (Marcus)
Shauna, with her husband Mark, is chef-patron at Marcus at the 5-star Berkeley Hotel. Coming from a family of restaurateurs (she started cooking in her early teens), she’s worked in Marcus Wareing’s restaurants throughout her 14-year career. Having made even more of a name for herself on Great British Menu, one wonders when – or if – she’s started thinking about having her own place.

Ruth Hansom (The Princess of Shoreditch)
Ruth Hansom is the definition of a prodigy. Starting at 16, she has worked at Boundary, The Ritz, Wernher, Pomona’s, and now The Princess of Shoreditch. And she’s not long turned 25. Ruth took over The Princess’ kitchen in September to bring her fondness for British cooking to life and, even this early in her career, is already looking to support the next generation of chefs, working with The Springboard Charity and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts adopt-a-school programme.

Other leading ladies to follow: Anna Tobias (Café Deco), Elizabeth Haigh (Mei Mei), Zoe Adjonyoh (Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen), Hélène Darroze (Hélène Darroze at The Connaught), Martha Ortiz (Ella Canta), Selin Kiazim (Oklava), Nieves Barragan (Sabor), Saiphin Moore (Rosa’s Thai Café), Skye Gyngell (Spring), Monica Galetti (Mere), Anna Haugh (Myrtle), Anne-Sophie Pic (La Dame de Pic), Freddie Janssen (Snackbar), Alexis Noble (Wander) Kim Woodward (100 Wardour Street), Erchen Chang (BAO), Margot Henderson (Rochelle Canteen), Pip Lacey (Hicce), Rachel Humphrey (Le Gavroche), Dipna Anand (Brilliant Restaurant).

This is a guest post from freelance food journalist Hugh Thomas. He’s contributed to Foodism, Time Out, Great British Chefs, and is part of British Street Food’s small team of vigilant writers. Find him on twitter @hughwrites.

Photo Credit: Lateef Okunnu for Sally Abé.