April 13, 2017

The "sexist" Best Female Chef awards

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Thrice a year, around the time of the respective announcements of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, and Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants - all of which are sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna - controversy erupts about the validity of this list... about how the rankings are total bullshit, the system and the people behind it are corrupt, how the list is not about the quality of the restaurants but the result of marketing efforts... etc.  The debate has been going on for years and isn't likely to go away soon.

In my book, any list or ranking is inherently imperfect, as everyone's tastes and preferences are different.  I love to repeat this cliché so much because it rings true : OPINIONS ARE LIKE ASSHOLES, EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE.  So I have grown tired of these discussions and won't go into yet another round here.

For the last couple of years, though, there has also been some blowback regarding the creation of the "Best Female Chef" award by the same organization responsible for the 50 Best lists.  Critics questioned why such awards were needed, and considered them sexist.  Many of the same people also openly wondered whether there should be "Best Male Chef" awards alongside these gender-specific awards.

At the risk of throwing more gas on the fire - and getting totally flamed in the process - I'll come out and say that criticizing the need for "best female chef" awards is analogous to criticizing people for saying #BlackLivesMatter.  And people who don't see a need for these kind of awards are also likely to feel that there's no need for any kind of affirmative action - that everything should be based purely on merit because everyone is on the same, level playing field.  That's just fucking bullshit.

I'm not part of the hospitality industry, and I'm sure those people within the industry would know the challenges of being in the industry much better than I do.  But even a civilian like myself can easily see the strains that long hours in the kitchen can have on a chef's life, and those pressures seem even more onerous when the chef is question is female - given the many allegations of sexism in the kitchen.  If you have any doubt that the existence of sexism in this industry - only one of those challenges facing female chefs - check out this story about Dominique Crenn.

I am therefore not the least bit surprised when, in compiling lists of "top" restaurants, very few at the very top are ones helmed by female chefs.  This isn't to say that women can't be top chefs.  History tells us that long before Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon came on the scene, the world's first chef to run multiple Michelin 3-star restaurants was Eugénie Brazier - whose twin La Mère Brazier restaurants once both held the highest honor from Michelin.

Let's examine the criticism - directed at the World's 50 Best Restaurants - regarding the absence of restaurants run by female chefs on the 50 Best lists.  Some of them wondered why only three entries in the 2017 World's 50 Best Restaurants are represented by female chefs - and in all cases, share the billing with a man.

Is the World's 50 Best Restaurants - and the people whose votes make up the list - particularly sexist? Let's see:

In the 2017 edition of the World's 50 Best Restaurants - and the accompanying 51-100 list, the following 6 restaurants are represented by female chefs - with 3 in the top 50:

No. 5, Central - Pía Léon shares the billing with her husband Virgilio Martinez
No. 30, Arzak - Elena Arzak (World's Best Female Chef 2012) shares the billing with her father Juan Mari Arzak
No. 40, Cosme - Chef de Cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes shares the billing with chef/owner Enrique Olvera
No. 69, Hiša Franko - Ana Roš (World's Best Female Chef 2017)
No. 81, Maní - Helena Rizzo (Latin America's Best Female Chef 2013, World's Best Female Chef 2014) shares the billing with her husband Daniel Redondo
No. 83, Atelier Crenn - Dominique Crenn (World's Best Female Chef 2016)

Let us look at three other lists - all published in 2017 - compiled by Steve Plotnicki at Opinionated About Dining.  These are also the results of a voting system, although the methodology is vastly different from that of the 50 Best.

In OAD's Top 100+ European Classical and Heritage Restaurants 2017, 4 restaurants are ranked within the top 100, with 3 inside the top 50:

No. 12, Dal Pescatore - Nadia Santini
No. 13, Pic - Anne-Sophie Pic (who was World's Best Female Chef 2011)
No. 37, Al Sorriso - Luisa Valazza
No. 94, Romano - Franca Checchi

Similarly, in OAD's Top 100+ U.S. Restaurants 2017, 6 restaurants are found within the top 100, with just one inside the top 50:

No. 46, Atelier Crenn - Dominique Crenn (World's Best Female Chef 2016)
No. 76, Acquerello - Suzette Gresham
No. 78, Aquavit - Emma Bengtsson
No. 83, N/Naka - Niki Nakayama
No. 88, Del Posto - Melissa Rodriguez
No. 97, Elizabeth - Iliana Regan

Finally, in OAD's Top 100+ Asian Restaurants 2017, which is dominated by entries from Japan, there are actually none within the top 100.  The only 3 entries within the top 200 are:

No. 131, Bo.Lan - Duangporn 'Bo' Songvisava (Asia's Best Female Chef 2013) share the billing with husband Dylan Jones
No. 133, Le Moût - Lanshu Chen (Asia's Best Female Chef 2014)
No. 139, Tate Dining Room - Vicky Lau (Asia's Best Female Chef 2015)

I looked at a few of the Michelin Guides published in Asia to see how many restaurants fronted by female chefs have been awarded stars.  Here's what I found:

In the 2017 Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau, there were 61 starred restaurants in Hong Kong, and 2 restaurants with female chefs in charge of the kitchen - the aforementioned Tate Dining Room and Akrame Hong Kong, both with 1 star.  Out of 22 starred restaurants in Macau, no restaurant was fronted by a female chef.

In the 2017 Michelin Guide for Singapore, there were 29 restaurants awarded stars, and none were headlined by a female chef.

In the 2017 Michelin Guide for Shanghai, there were 26 restaurants awarded stars, and none were fronted by a female chef.

Further afield in the U.S., Michelin does a slightly better job in New York.  The 2017 Michelin Guide for New York City lists 76 starred restaurants.  None of the 6 3-star restaurants were run by a female chef.  In the 2-star category, Aquavit (Emma Bengtsson) was the lone entry out of 20 restaurants.

There were more restaurants with 1 star with women running the kitchen.  The 6 entries were:
The Breslin - April Bloomfield
Delaware and Hudson - Patti Jackson
Del Posto - Melissa Rodriguez, but still Mark Ladner at announcement
La Vara - Eder Montero shares billing with husband Alex Raij.
Take Root - Elise Kornack
Uncle Boon's - Ann Redding shares billing with Matt Danzer

So.... after all that rambling, what's my point?  Well, I think there are valid reasons why female chefs should be fêted and their achievements singled out.  If you asked me to name the top female chefs in the world - or in Asia, for that matter - I probably would have difficulty coming up with names other than the ones already singled out by the various "best female chef" awards.  The reality is that the restaurant industry is very, very male-dominated at the top end, and from my own experience, I very seldom dine at top restaurants helmed by female chefs - there are just too few of them in existence.  Here in Asia, I've gone to Le Moût twice, Tate Dining Room twice, and Bo.Lan once.  The only other female chefs running kitchens that I can name are Margaret Xu, "Bee" Satongun (Paste), and Lise Deveix (Akrame Hong Kong) - and the latter doesn't even share billing with owner Akrame Benallal.

Maybe because it's fresh in my mind, but I'm getting a little tired of all the 50 Best-bashing - just like I've gotten a little tired of my own Michelin-bashing years ago.  If you wanna accuse the 50 Best list of being "sexist", then you might as well look at other "listicles"... and clearly OAD's 3 lists published this year aren't any better - and one could argue that Michelin doesn't do any better.  So what's with the hypocrisy of 50 Best hate, especially from the people at Eater?!

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