How to celebrate women in our kitchens

Anna Pavoni (second from right) in the Ormeggio at the Spit kitchen in Sydney.
Anna Pavoni (second from right) in the Ormeggio at the Spit kitchen in Sydney. Photo: Louie Douvis

The hospitality industry is famously dominated by men. Only three female chefs were included in the current World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the 66,735 male chefs in professional kitchens across Australia far outnumber the 21,308 women in the field. And the imbalance goes straight to the top: only 9.8 per cent of CEO positions in the industry belong to women.   

Restaurateur Anna Pavoni is pushing for change. She started in the business as a teen, now runs four venues (including Ormeggio at The Spit with husband Alessandro Pavoni), and is a member of the Women In Hospitality group – so she has great ideas for how to make the industry more equal.

"Everybody gets a job in hospitality when they're 14 – girls and boys, no problems. Then they go through school, make their money and everything's good," she says. The issue is when young women start to weigh up their options in their 20s (and contemplate their upcoming life changes) – they start to leave because they don't see a viable future in the industry. 

"I just want to jump up and down and say, 'there is, there is!'" Pavoni says. 

To encourage women to stay, it's necessary to show how hospitality is a legitimate career path. After all, Pavoni still thought she should get a 'real job', even after earning her pay-check in restaurants for more than a decade. 

"I was always working in hospitality to make some money and get by. I never considered it, ever, as a realistic long-term plan." As university mates left for prestigious jobs at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or Deloittes, Pavoni didn't register she was on the right career path until a mentor said, 'you do realise, Anna, hospitality is a real job. You know you can do it as a real job?'"

Five years later, at age 29, she opened Ormeggio at The Spit with husband, Alessandro. Their two-hatted seaside Italian restaurant was followed by other establishments: Via Alta, Chiosco and, most recently, Sotto Sopra, which scored a hat in the 2018 National Good Food Guide

Discovering a support network of other women deeply encouraged her. Through her husband's involvement with the Council of Italian Restaurants Australia, she met Marilyn Annecchini (Pilu from Freshwater), Sally Galletto (Lucio's), Gemma Percuoco (Buon Ricordo) and Michelle Maiale (A Tavola): "these amazing women who do what I do, but they were ahead of me, with so much more experience".

But she doesn't think hospitality should be defined by restaurateur and chef roles – the field spans everything from IT and HR to event management. There are more opportunities to pursue than people realise. "We're losing women out of the industry, because we're not educating people as to what the industry is," she says. 

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Through her exposure to Women In Hospitality, she's learnt that women can stay in the business by pivoting in a way that suits their lifestyle: like the chef who started her own terrine range (which allows her to cook, but maintain family-friendly hours), or the tech-savvy women who work on reservation websites. 

By connecting women from different facets of the industry, Women In Hospitality demonstrates how broad their career possibilities can be. "The response to WoHo has been amazing," says Pavoni. Expect the group to expand into other Australian cities soon.

Before having children, Pavoni underwent extra studies so she could transition from restaurant operations to other parts of the business (such as training, HR, accounting – roles that don't require working at 8pm on a Saturday). And she admits running your own business offers some flexibility when you have kids ("you're not having to say to your boss, 'sorry, I'm running 20 minutes late because there was a vomit situation"). There are ways she helps other employees, too – like pooling resources so they can share a babysitter. 

Initiatives like the Citibank Dining Program also make juggling everything easier. She appreciates the marketing and industry opportunities it offers – and Citi's support of restaurants overall, seen in the company's long-time partnership with the Good Food Guides and Good Food Months across Australia. Her restaurants are also part of the Citibank Dining Program. 

And perhaps it's inevitable that Pavoni became such a champion for gender equality in hospitality. At 15, she worked at Terrigal Thai for Toy Samingkaew – who still runs the restaurant today.  

"She'd be pushing 85 and she's still on the floor, she's still taking orders and managing the restaurant … She's amazing." 

The Citibank Dining Program offers Citi customers the opportunity to enjoy a complimentary bottle of wine when they dine at participating restaurants and pay with their Citi card. There are over 400 restaurants in the program nationally.