Is it time to stop treating women chefs differently?

CNN  — 

In his critique of the 2018 results of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the late Jonathan Gold, food critic for the Los Angeles Times, referred to the World’s Best Female Chef category as an “unlovable honor.”

The award handed out annually at the fine dining world’s equivalent of the Oscars – this year’s, held in Bilbao, Spain, crowned London-based Clare Smyth – is ostensibly aimed at celebrating women in a profession with a chronic dearth of leading female figures.

But while some see it as a positive step, others see it as part of the problem – especially at a time when gender inequality is coming under intensified scrutiny.

Ryan Sutton of described the award as an “unnecessary” accolade that tokenizes a woman chef and makes it seem as if she “isn’t as good as any of the male chefs on the list.”

Even Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, who was crowned World’s Best Female chef in 2016, was quoted as being “outraged” with the gender-specific award, although she felt “honored.”

“This award category defines chefs by their gender, not by their skills, it needs to change,” says Crenn, the first female chef to be awarded two Michelin stars in the United States. “I respect my peers but by having a gender-specific award, we are creating a competition among the genders.”

So what do other awarded female chefs think? Does it help or hinder women in the profession?

“While I understand the critics’ point of view, the award is positive,” says 2018 winner Smyth, chef-patron of Core, London. “It helps to surface issues surrounding the lack of female chefs in the industry and the debate is helpful.

“If we don’t talk about such issues, nothing changes.”

More attention

Smyth was the chef patron of Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant and held its three Michelin stars for nearly a decade before she opened Core. Her new venture was recently awarded two Michelin stars.

It’s easy to be negative and to criticize what people do, Smyth says, but that does not necessarily help change things.

Other female chefs echo her sentiments.

“I don’t think it is unnecessary or unlovable,” says Ana Ros, head chef of Hisa Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia, who was voted World’s Best Female Chef in 2017.

“The award gives us a platform to speak about our work and our problems – it actually gives us a lot of attention,” says the mother of two who gave 515 interviews with media in 2017 alone.

Ros, who became an ambassador for the Slovenian Tourism Board last year, says that the number one reason why so few women-led restaurants feature on gastronomy lists including Michelin and World’s 50 Best is that it reflects the “real percentage of female chefs in the kitchen.”

“It is purely a percentage reason,” agrees Smyth, “And for this reason, we must encourage more women to come into the industry and support them to achieve success.”

In her Notting Hill restaurant, Smyth has introduced measures to improve work-life balance for all her staff. This includes opening the restaurant for just eight services a week so that staff, regardless of gender, have days off to spend time with their families.

“There is an issue surrounding the industry being perceived as being non-conducive to family life, that’s why we need to make the industry better for everyone,” she says.

‘Male-driven industry’

Margarita Fores: Award is "necessary to improve gender equality."

Margarita Fores, named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016, says things are changing, albeit slowly, with more women chefs reaching the profession’s higher ranks.

“Since time immemorial, the restaurant industry has essentially been male-driven, with most restaurants and restaurant groups also male-owned, thus resulting in very few woman-led restaurants making it to gastronomy lists,” she says.

Fores, who owns the Cibo chain as well as restaurants including Lussa, Grace Park and Alta in Manila, says the recent San Pellegrino Young Chefs competition held in the Milan, Italy was an example of change.

For the first time since it began in 2015, four female chefs – Annie Feolde, Dominique Crenn, Ana Ros and Fores herself – chaired the judging panel of seven chefs that included Paul Pairet, Virgilio Martinez and Brett Graham.

This was after Crenn famously called out Italian drinks brand San Pellegrino in 2017 for including a men-heavy jury panel in its sponsored award competitions.

“I think having a female chef award is necessary to improve the present state of gender inequality in the restaurant industry,” says Fores, who has used her status to promote Filipino cuisine to a global audience.

Danish chef Kamilla Seidler, who was voted Latin America’s Best Female Chef in 2016 for her work at Bolivia’s Gustu restaurant, which she co-owns, agrees with Fores.

“In a perfect world where we have gender equality, we don’t need a separate category for Best Female Chef award, but this world is far from perfect,” she says.

Equality means the same access to the same opportunities, Seidler adds, suggesting that there should also perhaps be an outstanding male chefs award.

‘Conscious steps’

Kamilla Seidler: "This world is far from perfect."

She says the award is “a great boost” for women who challenge the opinions of those who insist that being a professional chef is for men only.

Seidler says her award has given her the opportunity to raise her voice and to help others. In January this year, she left Bolivia and returned to Copenhagen to join the Food Organization of Denmark to promote women in Danish gastronomy.

In August, she hosted a series of talks and workshops via the Freja symposium in Copenhagen aimed at facilitating networking for women and at giving them more opportunities in the hospitality industry. Seidler wants to create a social model for gender equality that will put the Nordic countries on the map as a global role model.

Crenn, meanwhile, launched an event series at her San Francisco Petit Crenn restaurant earlier this year to highlight the work of female chefs. The Women of Food hosts 12 of America’s celebrated female chefs over six dinners.

Crenn, who feels strongly that the separate female award category creates alienation between the genders, says that more needs to be done to bring women to the fore.

Smyth says that even incremental progress will help.

“We must take small conscious steps every day to be inclusive with female chefs and we have to keep ticking away at it, and then perhaps we will break the mold in a future generation.”