‘The male chef gang are all mates, support each other to the hilt and brook no criticism’
Food writer Trish Deseine and women in the food industry respond to the recent debate on all-male judging panels and restaurant award winners
When it comes to women in restaurants, macho chefs, sexism in the food media, oh man I have done my fair share of tongue-biting over the years in France, from where I have just returned after 25 years.
Like so many women I have developed that selective deafness and glassy-eyed stoicism we are often obliged to wear. After all, shock! Horror! I was an irlandaise writing in French in a predominantly male world of food and restaurants, picking up awards and a member of the French World’s 50 Best Restaurants jury.
When I dared write a restaurant guide to Paris, during a live, national radio interview (the last one I ever did in French) the titles of my cookbooks were read out by a sneering male journalist over porn film music. So even with motivation and credentials way stronger than my mere ovaries, I tend not to wade in much on feminism.
But last week, two things happened. One was Una Mullally’s column in The Irish Times calling out the lack of accolades for women chefs at the RAI awards. Then came the emergence of San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year juries around the world, with only a tiny smattering of women, including only one women in forty five judges across Europe.
Since I’ve come back to Ireland, I’ve been enjoying the way men and women speak to each other, in stark contrast with France.
I’m harbouring the notion that Emma Watson’s 2013 UN ‘He for She’ speech has actually been heard and that the mantle she threw down to men has been gladly and robustly taken up from Malin to Mizen.
I want to believe that in the restaurant world too, men are at last understanding the nirvana that embracing gender equality opens up to them. Sometimes I even imagine that the typical Irish male is slowly morphing (inside at least) into the perfect mix of our new favourite male feminist icons, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau.
On the UK/Ireland San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year jury of four male chefs, I saw there were two prominent Irish chefs I admire. When I saw “our” two chefs photographed on one of the male dominated juries, I reckoned this gender imbalance was all just a terrible mix-up.
Cheerfully and hopefully I asked them something like “Hey chaps, help us girls out here? Would you ever have a word and sort this mess out?”
When both men eventually responded, sort of, quite some time afterwards, they did not address balancing the San Pellegrino jury (and still have not.) And as equal representation on panels and conferences was ‘discussed’ online - in that disjointed fashion the male dominated Irish restaurant habitus became apparent.
There were jaw-droppingly outdated comments such as “why not 50% muslims” or more flippantly, “50% vegans”. Online comment regarding the lack of successful women chefs were straight out of the 80s, steeped in the purest discrimination of them all, the physical differences in our bodies.
The stereotype which made both male and female chefs believe that inequality was inevitable was the stereotype used to keep women from armed combat, the legal and medical professions.
This is part of the glorification of the physicality of kitchen work made sexy by cult chefs Marco Pierre White and Antony Bourdain which is slowly changing but still disserves women in kitchens today.
And as male chefs also dominate the intellectual stages they have created for themselves on juries, panels and at conferences, the gender imbalance continues there too. There is literally no space made for women to thrive and shine on equal terms.
Nowadays women in professional kitchens have had enough. Their numbers are swiftly increasing in culinary schools and as the rest of society embraces gender equality, they want equal pay, respectful treatment and at last, public recognition of their equal culinary talents.
It is a sad indication that the Irish women chefs to whom I spoke when preparing this piece asked to remain anonymous. They described the ‘brutal’ world still existing within many Irish kitchens, where women are degraded not only about their looks but also in their work. Often relegated to pastry, they have to put up with sexist remarks about their appearance and constant condescension from their male counterparts.
“On the outside we make out that everything is ok but in fact many women are scared to speak out and make things worse or lose their jobs. In this industry we can either be butch or babes, nothing in between.”
In 2013 Time ran their infamous, all male chef cover “ The Gods of Food”, which, wrote Julia Moskin in the New York Times in 2014, arrived in American restaurant kitchens “like a blast of ice water, chilling the women who have seen real change.” “It simply did not reflect the reality that we see in the industry every day,” said Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York.
I asked Xanthe Clay, Daily Telegraph food writer and Chair of UK/Ireland World’s 50 Best Restaurants, why she thought there were still so few female chefs in the spotlight.
“There is a culture of male chef gang - they are all mates, they support each other to the hilt, and they brook no criticism. They become untouchables. Dare to hint anything less than 100% positive and you alienate not one but all. By no means all male chefs are like that. But there are noisy and powerful ones that are.”
“I think there is sexism but I also think it is getting better - with more female chefs emerging. Elena Arzak’s kitchen model is interesting - mostly women, and flexible working hours to fit in with childcare. what Elena is doing is groundbreaking and important - restoring balance to the restaurant kitchen.”
On the lack of women on so many of the Young Chef of the Year juries, Xanthe says: “It’s short sighted and not reflective of the industry with so many rising women stars. Women need to build their own restaurant culture - one that doesn’t rely on bullying and chumminess.”
This echoed what one of the Irish female chefs remarked, that women tend to seek each other out in Irish kitchens, tired of the ambient discrimination.
Irish women chefs will catch up regardless, as women have before them in other industries. And the boys’ clubs where recognition and prizes and platforms were closed to them will eventually open up under the sheer weight of hard work and talent. For the moment in Ireland, it appears that there is little alternative but to wait. Meanwhile, discrimination through gender is no longer publicly redeemable but those who could step up when it happens still choose not to. That’s a real shame, for with a little more faith in women, more imagination and realising that equality is not about losing but gaining, it could be done faster - and it could be done together.