William Drew’s spin that the award is meant to, “shine a light on supremely talented female chefs with the aim of inspiring future generations of young women to reach for the heights of their chosen profession,” might pacify some. But female chefs share a different perspective. They view the award with suspicion, like a shiny bauble that distracts organisers, jurors, sponsors, and participating chefs from the fact that the host awards, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, is a boys club.
The gendered award has always felt like a consolation prize. That runner-up feeling amplified, as Charlotte Druckman astutely points out, by the fact that rarely does the World’s Best Female Chef land on The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. The Michelin Two Star restaurant, Atelier Crenn, owned by last year’s winner Chef Dominique Crenn wasn’t up to their standards. In April we’ll find out if Mr Drew will deal the same hand to Chef Ana Roš.
The award came into existence to solve a problem. Female representation on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list went from an average of nine percent (2002–08) to four percent in 2009, and it’s never risen. Some prominent women took note and began agitating on social media. In 2011 the award was born, and Chef Anne-Sophie Pic was the first recipient.
Was it a neat solution? Did the award allow the organisation to continue with business as usual and do nothing about the obvious gender bias? Can we accept the decline knowing that the number of female chefs leading great restaurant kitchens continues to grow? In 2016, not only did Chef Dominique Crenn’s restaurant fail to make the grade; female representation on the prestigious list sank to its lowest level, at two percent. It’s hard to hear Mr Drew talk of affirmative action while the organisation behaves in a manner toward women that could be construed as openly hostile.
And what of the jurors? Should we worry about the imagination of the “1000 ‘influential’ people from within the restaurant community” who in 2016 couldn’t come up with more than one female chef worldwide to include on the list? Given the repetition among award winners, it's reasonable to question the terms of the search. Are most of the jurors making rounds of the same international tables, playing some high-flying game of musical chairs?
Are top ranking chefs like Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm, and Rene Redzepi okay with being celebrated by an organisation that marginalises women? I’d like to hear them explain the ranking to the female chefs in their kitchens. What would they say? It’s not just the ‘best’ designation female chefs lose; it’s the media exposure and economic benefits that accompany it.
But why should female chefs worry about that when Mr Drew's tasked the World's Best Female chefs with cleaning and scrubbing the industry of all its woes:
“Between them and their fellow female winners, they are campaigning to attract more women to the industry, to improve traditionally anti-social working conditions and poor wages, to address work-life imbalance, to drive changes in food production methods and the treatment of farmers, to promote LGBT rights, to provide opportunities for the under-privileged, and to celebrate their respective localities.”
And while they’re busy nurturing the industry, what are the boys doing?
Who is the “we” that Mr Drew invokes? Are they content with gender segregation as a solution? The silence from the men associated with the awards suggests they’re not bothered by the way it plays out for women. Maybe they believe William Drew when he says, “It is not an award that seeks to separate female cooking or define it as ‘other.’” Most female chefs will recognize that statement for what it is, delusional and the talk of a man with a big stake in maintaining the status quo. As it stands, the World’s Best Female Chef award gives a false impression that all involved are concerned about equity when the evidence clearly suggests they're not.