Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This week, we’re speaking to chef Elizabeth Allen Haigh, who has a Michelin star to her name and is on a mission to make the restaurant industry a more welcoming place for women.
There aren’t many head chefs who would walk away from a restaurant that had just won a Michelin star. But in October 2016, that’s exactly what Elizabeth Allen Haigh did, hanging up her chef’s whites at the cult Hackney restaurant Pidgin in favour of striking out on her own. The move was seen as a bold one in the restaurant industry at the time, but – 18 months later – Allen Haigh has no regrets.
“I had already planned to leave before I got the Michelin star,” she tells Stylist over the phone. It’s a wet April morning, and she’s at home with her four-month-old son, Riley. “The star was a nice surprise, but at the same time, I was sure that it was my time to move on. I had new things that I wanted to accomplish, and I was really excited to work on those ideas.”
You get the sense that Allen Haigh, 29, is not someone who agonises over decisions. Her manner is calm, quiet and thoughtful, quite different from many of the UK’s famous male chefs, who tend to lean towards the flamboyant, eggheaded or irate. But this unassuming demeanour belies a steely singularity of focus. Born in Singapore and raised in Kent, Allen Haigh was studying architecture at Central St Martins when a friend dared her to apply for the 2011 series of MasterChef. She didn’t make it to the finals (the judges thought her smoked duck was too smoky, something she has attributed to her fondness for strong Singaporean flavours), but the experience sparked something in her. Culinary school in London followed, as well as stints working in gastropubs, Michelin-starred restaurants and as a freelance caterer for events and private diners. In 2015, she was invited to be head chef at Pidgin, and the rest is history.
Currently, Allen Haigh is working on a new project: Kaizen House, the restaurant group she founded immediately after leaving Pidgin. “Kaizen means ‘to continuously improve’ in Japanese,” she explains. Launching your own restaurant group is “ambitious”, she acknowledges, but once she had one idea for a restaurant, she found she couldn’t stop new concepts popping into her head.
“I wanted to create a group where I could work on sustainable, seasonal food but also make it a really good environment for the people working there,” she says. “I want to create restaurants that are a positive environment for women to come into.”
Allen Haigh is, perhaps, unusual in how much she talks about the importance of creating a supportive environment for kitchen teams and hospitality staff. She loathes the bullying that dominated professional kitchens for many years, although she thinks the tide is turning away from that kind of macho, aggressive culture. “Six or seven years ago, bosses would throw pans of oil at you and stuff like that,” she laughs. “I really don’t think that would happen now. People just won’t accept it.”
Unsurprisingly for an industry that often has no HR structures, the restaurant industry has had its own #MeToo moments in recent months, and Allen Haigh sees sexual harassment as going “hand-in-hand” with bullying. She’s experienced sexual harassment in kitchens: “I’ve felt that I’ve not been listened to in the past when this stuff happened to me, and so I just had to move on, and that’s sad.”
Her advice to young female chefs (“and young male chefs, actually”), is to speak up as soon as possible if they encounter bullying or harassment. “Communicate straight away with your manager if you’re not happy or comfortable. Bosses have got to deal with it and knock it on the head.”
However, Allen Haigh sees motherhood, rather than sexual harassment, as the biggest impediment to getting more women into senior roles in professional kitchens. Even before she herself became pregnant, she had spoken about the difficulty of maintaining a career as a chef while having a family, and firmly believes that more needs to be done to make it easier for women to do both.
“Especially after having a baby, I have a lot of compassion for women in our industry,” she says. “With Kaizen House, I want to make it a bit easier and a bit more acceptable for women [chefs to have children].”
In many cases, restaurants don’t offer maternity leave for their chefs, meaning that a woman might only get two weeks’ statutory leave with her baby before returning to lengthy, late-night shifts. It can also be extremely difficult to sustain the demands of working in a professional kitchen while pregnant, something that Allen Haigh says should not be used as a reason to block women from becoming head chefs.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult and physical being in the kitchen and it’s dangerous as well,” she says. “I worked until I was seven months pregnant, and I felt so faint and ill after working 12-hour days. Even in the first trimester, that’s the most demanding of all in some ways because your body’s just exhausted and you’re throwing up – and you can’t be around food when that happens.
“I think bosses need to respect that women are hardworking and we want and deserve a place in the kitchen, but at the same time, you physically can’t [if you’re pregnant],” she continues.
Not all restaurants can afford to pay for full maternity cover, especially small independent restaurants, but Allen Haigh has ideas for how restaurant owners can otherwise support their female culinary staff. “I would approach it by introducing shared job roles, where you have two people splitting the responsibilities,” she says. But ultimately, she says, more legislation needs to be introduced. “I think, as with a lot of things, it really depends on the government and their support that matters.”
Allen Haigh’s own pregnancy somewhat waylaid the opening of Kaizen House’s much-anticipated first restaurant, Shibui. It was originally due to open late last year, then early in 2018, but those timings had to be put on hold until she had Riley. She’s currently hunting for a new venue for the restaurant, and hopes that it will open later this year.
“Shibui is all about Asian European combinations, which is what I am,” she says (her mother is Singaporean and her father English.) “European flavours, seasonal food, ingredients that don’t come from far away, but with the Asian style of cooking and the flavours that I grew up with that pack a bit of a punch.”
While being a young female chef of mixed heritage can sometimes mean she feels like “a token chef”, Allen Haigh is determined to be defined by her work.
“I just appreciate that people are interested in where I’m going and what I’m trying to achieve, and I focus on that,” she says. “I know that what I’m working on is important to me, and I’m trying to show everyone the best I can do.”
Images: Ming Tang Evans / Pomme Hongsananda / Dan Harris