There are more female chefs in the British catering industry than ever before, with high-end names such as Angela Hartnett, Helene Darroze, Rachel Humphrey and Thomasina Miers emerging triumphantly from a crowd of male peers to prove that women do have what it takes. And with a male/ female industry ratio now at 60/ 40 respectively, it’s a wonder how Karen MacKay, head chef of the Townhouse Collection’s Channings Hotel in Edinburgh, was ever refused a job because of her gender.
Now with a career spanning a decade, award nominations and rosette retentions under her belt, a 30-year old MacKay speaks openly to Becky Paskin about how, with a little passion and raw talent, she proved her doubters wrong.
“I’ve never found cooking difficult, I suppose it must be a natural talent,” she mused, recalling her student days at Edinburgh’s Telford College. “In the first year I thought I was the best person in the class. I thought ‘I’m better than this, I shouldn’t be in this class’, but I learned all these classical recipes I wouldn’t have known how to make before. So although I thought I was better than college, I actually benefited from going.”
MacKay started her career in the kitchen as a demi chef de partie after a work placement at Channings soon turned into full-time employment, but she didn’t give up the studying there.
“They were willing to let me do my HNC outside of work, and helped me out with stuff I wasn’t sure of, but I did find the course quite easy. I didn’t struggle or anything, I found it all relatively repetitive actually.”
But MacKay was continuing to learn in the kitchen at Channings. Having moved on to the position of sous chef, and seeing college peers around her move from one job to the next, she counted herself lucky to have found a place to work in which she was happy.
But determination and drive soon won out and MacKay left the place she now considers home to find a position she was really after – head chef.
Determination and discrimination
“I was at sous chef level and I knew I could run the kitchen, I was ready for it. I decided I was going to try and get a job as a head chef somewhere as there were no job opportunities in the company.”
She applied for a job in a small restaurant in Edinburgh, for which she was offered an interview, but despite her own confidence in her abilities, MacKay was not prepared for the reception she received.
“There were two owners and one really wanted me to work there, but the other was a gentleman in his late sixties, and when he interviewed me he asked if I thought people would listen to me as I was female,” she fumed, in disbelief that an employer would have such an archaic attitude to the industry. “I didn’t get the job, and I was really pissed off about it. My team at Channings don’t respect me any less because I’m female – at one point there were five female chefs in the kitchen. Now I know there’s more and more coming into the industry.
“Funnily enough, a year after when that gentleman had sold his side of the business, I got offered the job.”
MacKay smartly declined, and proving herself an able female chef, stepped into the role as head chef of Melville Castle where she won her first AA rosette, although she explains the move was probably the worst career decision she could have made.
“I’d gone there in the first place for the head chef position, but it was very much a ‘bar food’ place in a small village so people weren’t up for change. They even stopped coming to the restaurant because we weren’t doing scampi and chips on the menu anymore. The owner didn’t have much experience in running a hotel and he wanted to be very involved in the restaurant. It was a real struggle working there.”
She lasted just nine months before moving onto another short employment at Cringletie House in Peebles. It was here she learned the position as head chef at Channings was to become available, and MacKay jumped at the chance to return to the restaurant she regarded as home.
Home Sweet Home
After a short stint back in her old position as sous chef, MacKay was promoted to head chef in March 2007, a position she regards as her first real role of leading a kitchen.
“I was really happy that I got the promotion, it’s my greatest achievement. I expected to get it, but there was always that doubt in my mind that maybe they would give it to somebody else. I worked really hard for it and I think I deserved it,” she said proudly.
“I counted the position as more of my first head chef role than at Melville castle, mainly for the whole organising of everything. I’ve seen other chefs working and I’ve thought they don’t work as much as their team, so I’m very much involved in the service and everything, I don’t just let them get on with it.”
Almost two years down the line and MacKay has managed to retain Channings’ two AA rosettes, as well as secure herself a commendation as a Rising Star Hotel Chef of the Year in the Scottish Hotels of the Year Awards 2008. And just last month she was given the chance to work alongside Angela Hartnett at her newly opened York and Albany, after securing a HIT Scotland scholarship.
“Although cooking wise I didn’t learn a huge quantity, managerially I benefited from the experience as they communicated really well. In general it’s a lot different to what I’m used to as we’re a lot smaller and we don’t have someone standing on the pass calling tables away, but it was all pretty smooth running, everyone knew what they were doing, and everything was done on deadline time.”
Despite having the opportunity to work alongside one of the best female chefs in Britain, MacKay admits she admires more than just accomplished women working in the industry. Citing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Edinburgh treasure Martin Wishart as the people she takes inspiration from the most, MacKay explains how their philosophies have influenced her own cooking.
“I like HFW just because he makes everything and utilises every ingredient. I’m really interested in that. I like getting in the cheaper cuts of meat people don’t always use, and cooking them nicely instead of just using, say, fillet of beef that prices have gone sky high for. We’re going back to cuts they were using 15-20 years ago, so instead of using fillet we’re doing ribeye at the moment, and we have done a braised shoulder in the past.
“I’ve taken scallops off my menu too because they’re so expensive, and now we’ve got a nice red mullet dish on. Also, instead of using French butter when cooking, we’ve gone to using a Scottish butter now, although I admit the French was nicer.”
MacKay’s passion for fresh, seasonal produce and the variety of ingredients Scotland lends to dishes on her menu, has fuelled her dream of one day opening her own ‘restaurant with rooms’ in her home town of Dornach in the Highlands.
With her self-confessed ‘natural talent’, passion for food and raw ambition, MacKay could be a name to watch out for. The only thing holding her back from pushing for three rosettes is good business sense and a clear focus on the restaurant she has, a fact she describes as ‘disappointing’, but in the right place and at the right time, MacKay could find herself representing Scotland in the new wave of talented British female chefs.