Janine Kennedy: Standing up to male egos in the kitchen

By Katia Valadeau
26th August 2019

Janine Kennedy is a chef, teacher and food writer – and she says it’s time women stopped being ‘man pleasers’ and male chefs moved over more. 

She’s also a woman with a vision. She thrives in the Irish food community and is an ardent advocate of good food and women’s rights in the kitchen.

Although we’ve never met, I feel a sense of kinship with Janine. Like me, she is a foreigner in Ireland (she’s Canadian, but to be fair we’re white women from rich countries so we’re top of the food chain when it comes to foreigners).

This can come with some challenges, but instead of getting bogged down, she has inserted herself into the Irish food industry community. I like to think I have done the same.

Her and I have similar beliefs and values in the main and as I’m putting this post together, I’m smiling and nodding at her answers to my question. She’s my kind of woman.

The School Of Food is a superb, funded concept, and is currently recruiting for (paid) students.

Finally, in September, Janine will be putting on a five-course dinner, with local producers. This will done in conjunction with The Green Sheep in Thurles. Keep an eye on her Facebook page for announcements and details of the night.

I’m talking to women the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?

Funny – my career had nothing to do with how I ended up in Ireland. I was an opening chef for a very large hospitality company in Toronto – working for a celebrity chef, opening unique concept restaurants all over the city, that kind of thing – and when my husband (who is Irish) and I discovered we were expecting our first child.

We knew we could never raise our kids in the city. It’s just not who we are. I grew up in the forest, basically, on the east coast of Canada and my husband is a pure Tipperary farm boy. The countryside is all we know.

This move could have been career suicide for me, but it’s actually been the opposite – the best thing I could have ever done.

How does your career fulfil you?

I’m really passionate about feeding people. It’s how I show love to my family and friends. In university, I realised I had to become a chef or a food writer because I was the only one out of my friends who could cook.

I spent a crazy amount of time cooking meals in university and eventually started writing a food column, which taught basic culinary techniques and recipes, for my university newspaper. I even wrote my thesis on fair trade coffee cooperatives (I worked as a barista throughout university).

After university, culinary school was the natural progression. I knew the money wouldn’t be great, but the thing is – when you love what you do, success often follows. And I’ve been very successful as both a chef and a freelance food journalist. As a result, I’m fulfilled in many ways by my career.

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Janine Kennedy?

I’m currently teaching a chef training program at the School of Food in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny and I find it extremely challenging and rewarding. I love seeing students progress in their skills and food knowledge; I love hooking up my students with some of Ireland’s best chefs to continue their food education under their tutelage.

But, as a chef, I can’t let go of the nagging feeling that I need to have my own place. I am a freelancer in every sense of the word – I don’t have a kitchen to call my own. I feel like when I’m ready to lay down food roots and start paying rent (a concept that is terrifying to me; I’m a millennial) I will have achieved my end-goal.

In your opinions, what challenges do women face in the food industry in Ireland? 

The same challenges women face in Canada, and everywhere else – the industry has been dominated by powerful male egos for a very long time.

My role as a chef has largely been to support these men so they can shine. A lot of women are in the background making sure things go according to plan, because we’re mostly well-organised and reliable – attributes that are desirable in a chef.

I only recently started tooting my own horn, though I find it uncomfortable. Partaking in things like the Parabere Forum have helped me realise how valuable I, and women in general, are to the industry.

We still have a long way to go. I have never been successful in my endeavours without the backing of a wealthy white man, and this is the case for many other successful women in food.

Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspire you and why?

There are so many. Ireland is chock-full of inspiring women in food. Jess Murphy is my good friend and one of my biggest supporters – she has been so instrumental in highlighting women in Irish food.

There are lots of women producing food here in Tipperary – Breda Maher (Cooleeney Cheese) is ten minutes down the road from my farm and is a powerhouse in Irish farmhouse cheese.

Annie Dalton is growing amazing organic vegetables in Cashel. Ailbhe Gerrardis a visionary shepherd, environmentalist and beekeeper on the shores of Lough Derg.

There are amazing women in Tipperary doing great things.

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

Frankly, I think men in the industry need to do more.

I remember seeing a famous chef being interviewed and, when asked which women in food inspire him the most, he said “Can I say my mother?”. Well, yes you can. But you’re missing an opportunity to talk about some of the women in the industry who inspire you. The women who could greatly benefit from one single mention.

It’s a cop-out and definitive of the “bro culture” infamous throughout the industry. I think a lot of our well-known food writers have been amazing to equally promote women in our industry and, slowly, professional kitchen culture is becoming more accommodating toward a work/life balance. We will get there.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Having developed an 11-week commis chef training program that truly works. It’s industry-focused, hands-on and meant to get the trainee chef from the classroom into a professional kitchen as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Dermot Gannon and I have put our heart and souls into this program at the School of Food and seeing students from the first course still in the industry – and succeeding – makes me extremely proud.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Stop being a man-pleaser! I was raised in a very traditional household and women in general are raised to be agreeable. I didn’t value myself or my abilities, which are in high demand. I’m really good at what I do. I wish I had realised this earlier.

I have three daughters and they will not be raised to be agreeable. They are going to be empowered and will always know their worth.

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

Organisation, time management, an understanding of flavour profiles, an understanding of technique and passion. If you’re not passionate; you’ll burn out very, very quickly.

What Irish food should tourists make sure they try?

I love Irish beer. I am an unrepentant beer-lover. I think you could pair any food, easily, with good Irish beer. Our meat and dairy are world-class, and I always make sure to give visitors from abroad a massive farmhouse cheese platter when they visit.