Posted on February 08 2017
This week's Wednesday Woman is photographer and chef Nikki Compson. Whilst studying for a BA in Photography, Nikki has created a series entitled "Women Belong in the Kitchen." In her own words, "the percentage of female chefs working in professional kitchens in the UK is dropping and I chose to use photography and sound to discover why." Here's her story:
Newnham: What were you like growing up and who/what were your inspirations?
Compson: My mum would say I was a tomboy. Having two older brothers and lots of male cousins I guess that was inevitable. I was very bossy, very inquisitive, very stubborn and most of all very messy. But I think all those things also helped me be creative.
As a kid if anyone told me I couldn’t do something because of my size or my gender, I would have to prove them wrong so I think wanting to be a chef came from a passion for food and the desire to prove myself.
I met my biggest inspiration when I was 19. I was at a bit of a standstill in my life, I’d left college and was desperately applying for scholarships to go to cooking school. On the same night I got a rejection, I received a phone call from Jacqueline Wise (now Naish). She was a private chef and caterer (Kelmsley Events), and offered to train me up while working for her. That was three years ago and I’m now her chef de partie. Her hard work and ambition inspired me then, and still does now.
Newnham: And what drew you to photography?
Compsom: I think my general nosiness drew me to photography, and also a geekiness, as I like to find out how things work. I did an art foundation course in Falmouth but it was mainly painting. Photography was a hobby I taught myself through manuals and online videos. I was really shocked when I got to university that I was one of the few who hadn’t done photography at college. I’m now in my third year at the University of Brighton and I’ve particularly enjoyed doing stuff in the darkroom or making installation art. My learning disabilities (I have dyslexia and dyspraxia) mean my attention span isn’t great and I’m best when I’m making stuff or doing things with my hands. I liked how photography could be used in an interactive way in art spaces to engage audiences in a less traditional gallery experience.
Newnham: We discovered you via your Women Belong In The Kitchen series – can you tell us more about the project and what led you to choosing this subject matter?
Compson: From working as a chef myself, I’ve obviously had my own experiences being a female chef. I remember doing a private chef job once and being told by an 8 year old boy that I was a cook not a chef because I was a girl. This childish stereotype is reflected by the statistics that less than one fifth of chefs in restaurant kitchens are female. This still shocks me as ask any chef, or keen cook, and they will most likely say they learnt to cook from their mothers or grandmothers.
Historically, across the world, women have been known to be in domestic spaces yet once it’s a professional kitchen, it’s a male dominated environment. So I wanted to address that and I also think what made me do this project was that I’ve had so many conversations with people surrounding this issue, from waitresses to kitchen porters and I just wanted to show what it’s really like for chefs who are female. The project title itself developed from the sexist stereotype of women belonging in a domestic space yet not often found in a professional one.
What I was keen to do with this project was to use it to give voices to other female (and those who identify as female) chefs with a variety of experiences. So in September I devised a list of questions and pestered chefs on the internet to let me come and photograph them. I’d never done a digital project and I’d never done a documentary project so it was all out of my comfort zone. But the conversations I had and kitchens I visited really inspired me. They made me want to share this project and inspire other young women to join this profession and to not be put off by the macho, testosterone-fueled stereotype.
For my university submission this project will be an installation featuring three walls of projections and audio clips from my interviews with all the chefs I’ve had the honour of meeting. It will include kitchen sounds during service to add to that sense of space that chefs experience on a daily basis. With my instagram, I created this after my hard drive and laptop broke in the same week! I lost a lot of the photographs I’d taken and wasn’t feeling positive about everything. I posted on a world wide chef collective on Facebook one evening hoping to find some more chefs near London/Brighton. I woke up the next day to hundreds of messages from female chefs all over the world. From Australia, to Kenya, to Germany, I was being sent photographs and responses to my questions. This inspired me to make the instagram where I include both my own and others photographs. I like the collaborative nature of what this means for the project and how, despite distance, there can be common ground for chefs worldwide.
Newnham: What have you found most interesting about the series and how important is it do you think to shine a light on women like this?
Compson: What I’ve found most interesting is the responses I’ve received. Quite a few of the chefs I’ve met have received negative experiences from being interviewed for a magazines. A lot of journalists tend to tokenize women in the kitchen and this was something I really didn’t want to do with my project. But when people ask me why I’m doing this project I always say that once the statistics are more equal, and treatment is not based on gender, there will be no need for a project like this.
The best part of this project has been meeting some really inspiring people and seeing great working environments. Kitchens which are diverse and where the staff enjoy their jobs is so against the ‘Gordon Ramsey’ stereotype of a totalitarian regime of a brigade. Also the women I’ve met who’ve left the traditional restaurant kitchens such as Cicely Violet, Emily Dobbs and Isabel Li Sim Morris, to set up their own catering companies shows how the statistics don’t always represent the facts. I think it’s important that I’ve met with a variety of chefs and that I post different people’s stories as this creates a project that isn’t just representing one type of person.
Newnham: And finally, what are your goals for 2017?
Compson: My goal is firstly to graduate! I hope to go back at the point of working in restaurant kitchens but I also want to keep running this project for as long as I can. Through this project, I’ve recently started working for Female Foodpreneur and other organisations as well. I have no idea where I’ll be in a year's time but as long as I’m cooking and taking photographs, I’m happy.
Image of Nikki by Aimée Annabel Barkany