“No one’s taught you how to carry plates, have they?”
“Of course not. Isn't it obvious?”
The first person in this conversation is experienced 20-something restaurant manager Maddie Coomer. She’s been a fixture in Perth dining rooms since her teens and, like father and veteran Perth chef and restaurateur David Coomer, isn’t one for beating around the bush.
The other in the conversation is me, a journalist pretending to be a waiter and donating his time to the inaugural Food by Women event. A long-table dinner held at City Farm in East Perth, the event was staged with the goal of strengthening relations between farmers, chefs and eaters. One week out from the event, all 180 tickets had been snapped up and a waiting list of 100 was hoping to get in on the action.
Like the name suggests, the stars of the show are women but I – and, thankfully, a handful of more able volunteers – was invited to help serve food, bus dirty dishes back to the kitchen and generally keep the night on track. I’m always happy to get involved with worthwhile charities: this time, I just wasn’t sure which side of the charity I was on.
I’ve caught Coomer’s eye because she’s noticed I’m trying to balance a plate halfway up my forearm. It’s being (barely) held in place through a combination of willpower, fear and a not-especially-big bicep. She quickly corrects my technique (you sort of hold your hand in a reverse Spiderman web-shooting pose and rest one plate on your index and pinky figures while fingers three and four cradle another below). I instantly feel a hundred times more useful. And then I spy Coomer gliding out of the kitchen with four plates super-glued to her arms like first-place rosettes.
It’s not the first time I’d be impressed by someone at the event.
Perth, as anyone interested in eating and drinking knows, is awash with food and food events. Every weekend there seems to be a festival somewhere and my inbox is besieged by press releases about “special”, one-off dinners. While all this activity speaks to a certain level of industry buoyancy, I’d be lying if it didn’t feel like there was a certain sameness creeping into many of these events. And then along comes something like Food by Women to remind you about the powerful ability of food to bring people together.
The statistics about women in the Australian workplace aren’t pretty. Women have, on average over the past two decades, earned between 15 and 19 per cent less than their male counterparts. And despite studying science and maths in equal or greater number to men, women remain underrepresented in these industries. You’ll also find additional sobering statistics on gender inequality at The Australian Human Rights Commission’s website, and let’s not forget about the rampant sexual harassment in the hospitality industry. “Something has gone grotesquely wrong,” writes New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, “when chefs brag that the chickens they buy lived happy, stress-free lives, but can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being assaulted in the storage room.” For mine, this one-liner is a shoe-in for one of 2018’s most vital sentences in (food) journalism
There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, but none of either was on the Food by Women agenda. Instead, celebration was the order of the night as eight chefs working with produce sourced primarily by female farmers set about showing guests a very good time.
In every direction and stage of the evening, feel-good stories were unfolding, all with a strong female cast as the lead. Stories like that of Milka Hutchins, the “almost octogenarian” who’s cooked at Melbourne hospitals for more than half a century working tirelessly alongside daughter and chef of Shadow Wine Bar, Sue Hutchins. Milka was cooking before guests arrived and was scrubbing benches as they began leaving. Each chef was buddied with another emerging female chef – some were already working in WA kitchens, others were at various stages of their apprenticeships – to provide the latter with valuable on-the-job training. Thanks to a partnership with Buy West Eat Best, female hospitality students from around WA got to attend the event and see for themselves the power and potential of a can-do attitude. The drinks list, meanwhile, featured beers and wines made by companies with women at the fore.
The cooking, at least according to the guests I served and spoke to during the night, was excellent (waiters only got to snatch mouthfuls of things – often cold, always with our fingers – during service lulls, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on individual dishes). The presence of gutsy numbers such as pressed goat, raw hogget and pizzas freighting jersey-cow mozzarella and olive tapenade suggested that notions about women only being able to cook “feminine” food should be checked at the door. For good. Flavour, like so many things, doesn’t discriminate.
“The comradery shown through the night was quite special,” says Katrina Lane, one of the members behind the event’s organiser, Food Land Culture. “I wanted to not just provide a fair representation of women doing good things in the industry, but show they were good, too. I think we achieved that. Now what I’d like to see is a better representation of women in awards and opportunities for them to be involved with events.”
Although Lane says celebrating the industry was a key objective of the event, Food by Women also doubled as a fundraiser for the Esther Foundation, a program that provides support to young women doing it tough. While organisers are still calculating the final donation amount (Lane insisted that, unlike most fundraising events, small producers were paid for goods rather than asked to donate), between ticket sales and the bar, the event grossed close to $20,000. While that bodes for a nice cheque for the foundation, Lane is hoping that the knock-on effect is more than just monetary.
“It’s important for young women, to identify role models and take inspiration from that, whether they’re interested in making wine, cooking, farming or distilling things,” she says. “Women are out there doing that, but by nature we’re not very shouty about what we do. Hopefully this has created a chance for young women to really see who they are.”
Who taught women that they could be whatever they wanted to be? Hopefully, in time, all of us did.