Cate Devine: "Scotswomen have rarely been absent from the food and drink scene"

To celebrate International Women's Day, food and drink journalist Cate Devine discusses the increasing presence of women in the industry.

Published 6th Mar 2020
Updated 9 th Aug 2023

I’ve had the privilege of observing the Scottish food and drink scene for several decades now (yikes!), and it’s been hugely encouraging to witness the flourishing of brilliant young chefs and growers, independent restaurants, cafes and shops; community and market gardens; apprenticeships; and an unprecedented emphasis on local produce and products.

But I think it’s fair to say that among the most striking developments has been the increasing presence of women in the industry – in a vast range of areas.

Names that easily spring to mind in terms of chef-patronnes include Pam Brunton of Inver, Strathur; Carina Contini of Contini and Roberta Hall of The Little Chartroom, both Edinburgh; Giovanna Eusebi of Eusebi’s, Rosie Healey of Gloriosa, Julie Lin MacLeod of Julie’s Kopitiam, all Glasgow.

Lorna McNee, sous-chef at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Scotland’s only two-Michelin starred restaurant; Suzanne O’Connor, exec chef of Howies four restaurants in Edinburgh and Aberdeen; Marysia Paszkowska, executive head chef at Monachyle Mhor, Perthshire.

Cooks, writers and authors Mary Contini, Sue Lawrence, Flora Shedden, Sumayya Usmani.

A growing number of excellent front-of-house professionals, GMs and sommeliers. And the women farmers, producers, fisherwomen, distillers, brewers and educators who bring our produce world-class status.

The list goes on but sadly I don’t have the space to continue – except to pay tribute to modern trailblazers in the restaurant world, among them Nicola Braidwood of Braidwoods, Dalry; Shirley Spear, founder of the Three Chimneys, and Claire Macdonald of Kinloch Lodge, both Skye; Lesley Crosfield, formerly of the Albannach in Lochinver; and Jacqueline O’Donnell of Sisters, Glasgow.

It all seems very new and right-on but in fact historically Scotswomen have rarely been absent from the food and drink scene.

Scotland has a history of pioneering female chefs from Hilary Brown whose Michelin-starred La Potiniere in Gullane put East Lothian on the gastronomic map in the 1970s and 80s, and Gunn Eriksen, whose Altnaharrie Inn, Sutherland, was the first to gain two Michelin stars in 1994.

Way before restaurants were even a thing in Scotland, it was women who ruled the roost in the kitchens of the castles and large country houses all across the land.

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Their 18th and 19th century recipes, table-plans and house books can be seen in the National Library of Scotland and read in F Marian McNeill’s seminal 1929 book, The Scots Kitchen, and are testimony to how the modern Scottish “field to fork” and “nose to tail” movement was actually begun by these hard-working, low-earning women who also had to haul deer off the hill, learn butchery and fermenting skills and heave heavy kitchen kit amid large open fires.

The jury however is out on the question of whether there is such a thing as male and female cooking. Rosie Healey thinks there is: “Male cooking is about showing off the chef rather than what’s delicious to eat.

Female food is comforting food and lacks ego,” she told me. But Suzanne O’Connor reckons it’s in the kitchen, rather than on the plate, that the balance of women to men makes the real difference. “Women bring calm and focus,” she told me. “Consistency is key, being kind is key, because if the kitchen is happy then the food will be too.”

It seems to me that Scotswomen in food and drink are championed much more now than they were in the past. We just need a bit more of them.

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