Features

The Insidious Sexism of the ‘Female Chef’ Label

Why female chef awards and the term ‘female chef’ are never going to fix sexist working conditions in kitchens

Photos by Artu Nepomuceno (Christine Paredes), and Joshua Newton and Max Panama /Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I got to attend a slow food campaign in a hotel where, after the plates had been cleared and a good fraction of the guests gradually migrated to the dessert counter, the conversation in our table took an unexpected turn. As far as I can recall, talk prior to that shift was about farming purple corn and the history of the slow food movement, when someone suddenly asked:

“Why is it that most chefs are male?”

Our responses were disappointingly uniform. What met the question’s implied sentiment—that male chefs outnumbered female chefs—was a unanimous (and uneasy) acceptance that fizzled into a collective stalemate. None of us could offer an explanation or, at the very least, a guess. Perhaps, internally, we were all in a frenzy hoping to construct arguments that didn’t just resort to easy indignation. Externally, however, what we did was supply supporting anecdotal evidence.

“In my 19 years in the food industry, I have never worked with a female chef,” said the hotel’s culinary director. The statement in itself is hardly surprising, but to be confronted with it free of the usual buffers—phone screens, magazines—was strangely dumbfounding. It confirmed something that is already quite obvious; it also made me wonder about a certain infamous topic: women in the food and beverage industry. That glorious category. But I’m thinking about a specific question here, one that, phrased more pointedly by the media, goes something like: What is it like to be a female chef?

I wondered, at that moment at least, if something could be gained or learned from this rather dense inquiry. That is, I saw a bit of sense in the idea that maybe female representation in food (or in any field) can be bettered by putting a spotlight on being a female chef—by asking women, what is it like to be a female chef? I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

EVALUATING THE WORLD’S BEST FEMALE CHEF AWARD

Versions of that question exist more popularly as awards, as magazine stories and editorial headlines. For the former, take the case of The World’s Best Female Chef Award, an accolade annually awarded by The World’s Best 50 Restaurants. It’s been a point of contention for many years now, drawing criticisms from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and 2016 Best Female Chef awardee Dominique Crenn. Bourdain tweeted in 2013: “Why—at this point in history—do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities?”

Crenn, meanwhile, called the whole thing “stupid.”

“If you give a chef a female award, you’re going to alienate that gender to another gender. We are not a sport. They’re treating us as if we are a sport. You can promote women in a different way… a chef is a chef,” she told The Washington Post.

Pip Lacey, former head chef of the Michelin-starred Mayfair, agrees with Crenn. “I don’t get why we have to segregate the award—it’s a bit odd. I don’t see why you can’t compete with men, why there’s not just one category. It’s not like how in sport you are competing at a different physical level, I don’t think cooking is like that,” she told The Telegraph.

These criticisms are reactions to the unfair decision-making behind what has been touted as the default (male chefs) and what has been relegated as the other (female chefs). For what does it say that no equivalent prize category exists for male chefs? How come men aren’t being asked the question, what is it like to be a male chef?

On the other hand, there have been some people who refused to vilify the accolade. This year’s recipient of The World’s Best Female Chef Award, Clare Smyth, has gone so far as to defend it. She wrote in a blog post: “We still have a real lack of women recognized at the top of the industry and we have to do something about that—we’re not going to change it by ignoring it. Sometimes you have to go over the top by recognizing women and giving them a platform so that we can really start to change things and re-correct the balance.”

Smyth had been told by a few friends to refuse the award, but she accepted it anyway, maintaining that the award is a step towards better female representation.

After years and years of offering such an award, has anything resembling fair representation and safe, harassment-free working conditions in kitchens been achieved at a considerable degree?

Though it is hard to argue with that possibility (fair representation is badly needed, obviously), isn’t it clear by this point that these separate categories have done more harm than good to the women they supposedly aim to represent?

After years and years of offering such an award, has anything resembling fair representation and safe, harassment-free working conditions in kitchens been achieved at a considerable degree?

It seems that something as seemingly trivial as a label ought to be treated seriously—meaning to say, differently. Maura Judkins puts it best in an article for The Washington Post: “Instead of doing the work to elevate women in the industry—and, consequently, to give them a better shot in the main rankings—these groups separate the women out into their own awards as a way of overcompensating.”

Rather than creating these separate awards and implying that women ought to (gratefully) accept them, perhaps institutions should instead enact policies that fight sexist working conditions. Surely, this must be a far better option than The Best Female Chef Award.

ON HEADLINES AND THE LIMITS OF OFFENSE

“The Female Chefs to Watch in 2018,” “50 States: 50 Female Chefs,” “Women Chefs on How they Chopped to the Top.” These are actual headlines from online publications. In the past, we have also produced similar content. Last year, a whole print issue of F&B Report was solely dedicated to “women in food.” Again, that glorious category.

Reading a few stories from that issue as well as the abovementioned female-centric articles, what is particularly striking is the recurrence of a single narrative—one of being undermined, of offense and struggle, and then of overcoming these struggles to join a kind of resurgence in the culinary world.

(It’s odd that during a given year, there seems to be a resurgence of women in a certain field, only to be followed by a similar resurgence the next minute. How many times has there been a resurgence of women in food in the year 2018 alone?)

Other than being targets of conflict and offense, it’s unfortunate that there seems to be no other point of interest when it comes to writing about women. These stories are simply repetitive. They’re also reflective of a certain kind of media coverage of women in food—the kind that has led to a great deal of attention from the public and, consequently, progressive legal action.

But the thing is, the chances of these headlines inspiring the same kind of actual, palpable progress are very slim. And if they can’t lead to positive change, what good are they but passé journalistic angles that—like female-only prize categories—harm, rather than elevate the status of women in the food industry?

As I write this, I am aware of the fact that I may be composing a similarly old-fashioned piece that won’t lead to anything. This is an article that has clearly devised the same offense narrative, after all. And that narrative—when it comes to the question of inspiring actual progress—is bound to fail.

As the writer Jia Tolentino articulates in a piece for Jezebel, “…the offense model has failed, and dramatically. Women have a prominent voice in online media; feminism is a broad and verbally defended platform, and what has it all amounted to except a nightmarish discursive juxtaposition between what feminism says and what it is able to do?”

The model in itself is flawed; expressing indignation online can only go so far. It’s time for the people who are currently in power to do their share of the work.

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