Jen Perry from Room Forty on the vital role of women chefs

As we celebrate the centenary of the women’s right to vote, Room Forty's Jen Perry looks at the transformation of the culinary world over the same period; and digest the significant influence that women have made on our diet, attitude to ingredients and of course the nation’s love of food.

Jen Perry from Room Forty
Jen Perry from Room Forty

Heston, Gordon, Matt, Marco, Raymond, Michel, Jamie…the concept of the TV celebrity super-chef is relatively new. Professional chefs removing the veil behind the curtain and revealing the mysteries of their craft.

But there’s a pattern here – with a few exceptions, including the brilliant Angela Hartnett and Emily Watkins – they are virtually all men.

Lest we forget though, historically it has been women at the vanguard of cooking. Just as an army marches on its stomach, so does the nation and it has traditionally been women feeding the households of Britain.

The first major author to influence the cooking of the nation was by a woman, Isabella Beeton. Isabella was the original Domestic Goddess, her book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, was first published in 1861. An instant bestseller; the 76 chapter volume was a compendium of household tips and duties for the staff with a substantial cookery section. She exalted the merits of cooking seasonal and local food, a message that resonates today and particularly is a mantra for me and my business Room Forty. Most of her recipes, though tested by Mrs B, had in fact been purloined from a host of other writers – albeit that they too were all female. The influence of this book however cannot be understated. Incredibly, I50 odd years later, the book remains in print.

Fast forward 60 years and although ‘King of Chefs’, Auguste Escoffier was undoubtedly a culinary genius, King Edward VII, preferred the ‘Queen of Cooks’, Rosa Lewis. The brilliant Rosa cooked in the French style; lighter and less stodgy fayre than the Victorian cooking of Isabella Beeton. She was appointed as Edward’s personal chef, a role she looked after for 20 years. Rosa was formerly the chef to the Churchill family and a favourite of Kaiser Wilhelm II too. By the age of 35 this talented and clever woman had moved on. She bought the Cavendish Hotel which she transformed into one of the most fashionable hotels of the era frequented by the glitterati of the day.

1939 saw the start of World War II and the necessity for frugality. Marguerite Patten was appointed by the Ministry of Food to guide the nation through rationing. She wrote recipes and hosted a radio broadcast called The Kitchen Front designed to make the most of what was available. By 1947 she had become Britain’s first TV cook (although she was always insistent to her death that she was NOT a cook but a Home Economist). Still revered by contemporary chefs, it was Marguerite to whom Jamie Oliver turned for advice when working on his school dinner campaign as to how to make meals on a budget. In her remarkable 99 year lifetime she wrote an incredible 170 cookery books including one that I possess, The Everyday Cook Book in Colour, which went on to sell over 17 million copies. Tried, tested and trusted it remains a faultless reference.

Eccentric, slightly bonkers and so perfect for TV, Fanny Cradock hit British TV screens in 1955. The advent of colour TV in the late 1960’s brought technicolour to her odd make up and bizzare culinary creations such as garishly colour dyed piped mashed potato and odd things suspended in bowls of yellow aspic. Whilst she may have reigned on TV and been of huge entertainment value her legacy has not stood the test of time. Meanwhile Elizabeth David, was creating a revolution in food.

Elizabeth had toured around the Med and lived in Greece and France. As enthralled and excited as she was by the Mediterranean diet she was as equally appalled with the bland, grey, boring British diet that greeted her on her return to live in austerity London in 1946.. Her book A Book of Mediterranean Food published in 1950, was transformational.

It introduced austerity Britain to the vibrancy and colour of the Med diet; garlic, pasta, lemons, fresh herbs, brie, cous cous, peppers, olive oil… along with recipes forsuch exotic delights as moules marinières and spanakopita, bouillabaisse and brandade, boeuf en daube and dolmades. She became a revered and go-to spark of inspiration for chefs. Her journalistic skills brought the pages to life and she followed her initial book success with a series of similar acclaimed, inspirational titles.

Room Forty Afternoon Tea
Room Forty Afternoon Tea

Her friend and contemporary was fellow journalist Jane Grigson who wrote classics about British and French food; Fish Cookery(1973), English Food (1974), The Mushroom Feast (1975), Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (1978) and Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book(1982). An early critic of battery farming, she cared passionately about such things as provenance too; things that resonate very strongly with my personal ethos.

About this time Nigella Lawson’s mentor Anna Del Conte was making her mark. Having moved to the UK from Italy after the War she too found the British diet dull and wrote the classics Portrait of Pasta (1976), followed by Classic Italian Cookbook (1984) for a British readership and The Gastronomy of Italy (1984).

In 1960, the amazing Pru Leith moved to London from South Africa, attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School and soon set up Leith’s Good Food, a party and event catering business. In 1969, she opened Leith’s restaurant which won her a Michelin star at a time when Britain held but a handful. By1975, she had founded Leith’s School of Food and Wine which became the UK equivalent of the Cordon Bleu, training professional chefs and amateur cooks. In 1993 she sold the school which by then had grown to have a turnover of £15 million. As a business woman and cook Pru is incredible. Little wonder she was named Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year in 1990, has been awarded 13 Honorary University Degrees an OBE and CBE.

The team at Room 40
The team at Room Forty

The fabulous Mary Berry mustn’t and couldn’t be left from this list. She has published over 70 books following her first, The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, published in 1970. She is an  inspiration to millions with her foolproof recipe’s with clear instructions and a regular on TV.

The names Delia and Nigella have become Mononymous, ie, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson have both become so successful that you don’t even need to mention their second name.

Delia’s recipes are to this day, delicious, failsafe classics. Delia was omniprescent in magazines, through her books and on our TV screens from the late seventies up until her last book in 2009. The ‘Delia Effect’, was one of a trust so powerful that when she started using coiled mini whisks they sold out the next day. When her BBC How to Cook programme was first aired in 1998, supermarkets recorded an increase in sales of 1.3 million eggs the next day. Elizabeth David and Anna Del Conte may have introduced us to the concept of the likes of balsamic vinegar, but when Delia used it, it flew off the shelves. Another very clever business woman, Delia co-founded Sainsbury’s magazine and has the majority shareholding in her beloved Norwich City FC.

Nigella, Domestic Goddess, took over Delia’s culinary mantle first appearing on TV in 1998. Her vampish profile belies her phenomenal, achievable recipes and she currently still reigns supreme. Think the vogue for spiced baked cauliflower is new? Check out Nigella Bites, she was championing it in her first book back in 1991.  Her journalistic skill empowers her with a descriptive writing style that is as delicious and luminary as her recipe’s.

All of these women are inspirational, quite brilliant and clever. In this celebratory, centenary year of women having won the fight to get the right to vote I would argue that rather than being enslaved by the kitchen it has been a forum in which women have for over 160 years, shown themselves to lead, enlighten, inspire and excel.

Ask most male chefs who was their cooking inspiration and, certainly in the case of Raymond Blanc, James Martin and Marco Pierre White, it was their mother or grandmother. For me, I am delighted to say it was my mum as she always cooked amazing food and taught me the basics to build from. 

Who feeds your inspiration?  

Jen Perry, Room Forty Afternoon Tea Emporium and mobile baking school

We’re celebrating Merseyside’s amazing women in the food and drink industry. Nominate your favourites here.



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