Aurelie Altermaire: 'I'm a chef not a female chef – judge me on my food'

Rod Kitson
Equality in her kitchen: Aurelie Altermaire

A chef has spoken of the frustration she feels that women in charge of restaurant kitchens are still defined by their gender over their achievements.

Aurelie Altermaire is head chef at Bokan, which opens in Canary Wharf next week. She said she sees herself as no different from her male colleagues, but feels she always needs to work harder to prove herself.

“It’s good to be mentioned, but at some point it is frustrating because you don’t know where you compare if people look at you only as a chef, and not as a ‘female chef,’” she said. “Would you be graded at the same level? I’m not sure. I just want to work really hard and do my best. Yes, I am always asked the question about being a female in the industry, but for me I never saw myself any differently in the kitchen.”

Altermaire, 33, said she knew she stood out because of the high percentage of male head chefs in London, but added: “I want to be looked at for the work I can accomplish and not how my career has been as a ‘female chef ’.

“If people spoke more about my food, my food style, rather than talking about my gender it would be more gratifying. I would feel more accomplishment for what I am doing, rather than talking about who I am.”

New challenge: Bokan

The French-born chef said the question was unlikely to go away until the gender balance of kitchens was improved, explaining: “How do we change the perception that it is more of an achievement for a woman to reach the top than a man? To have more women doing it. If there were more women head chefs it would be less special and feel more normal.

“That would make gender less important to people. Maybe to some people it seems like a very hard job. I never found that myself, I never had any issues in the kitchen.”

Altermaire has worked in England for a decade and was formerly in charge of a team of 32 at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the West End.

“I never had an issue with my staff,” she said. “But you feel like you always have to work harder to show everyone you’re better.

“If you take a male chef, everybody will respect that person because he is a chef. It doesn’t work that way with female chefs. I feel you have to earn the respect with your work, so I have to work a lot to show everybody it is not a mistake that I am where I am.

“It’s a question of perception, yes. People have an idea of what a ‘chef ’ is. It’s a long way off from changing. I don’t know how long that will be. It is already equality in my kitchen."

Her modern European restaurant Bokan opens next Wednesday, on the 37th floor of Novotel, Marsh Wall.