Time magazine recently published a feature on the 13 most influential people in the food world. The list actually included 15 people and a company, but it wasn't the fact that Time editors seemingly can't count that had readers, chefs, restaurateurs and just about everybody else in the food industry commenting on the piece. It's that of the 15 people, only four of them are women. And none of the four women profiled are chefs. They're influential in other ways -- some would argue more so than the men written about -- but the glaring omission in the article begs the question: Where are all the great female chefs?
As soon as the piece came out, men and women in the culinary world began drafting commentaries on what most feel is an obvious snub of all the women who paved the way for some of the top male chefs to rise in the ranks or are innovating without shouting about it from the rooftops. People bring up Alice Waters again and again, as well as, among others, Elena Arzak, Nancy Silverton and Barbara Lynch.
Waters is, of course, the founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and though she's more of a restaurateur than a chef, her emphasis on fresh, local organic produce back before it was cool to eat heirloom tomatoes certainly changed the way we eat and think about food. Arzak is a Spanish chef whose restaurant has three Michelin-stars, and she won the 2012 title of best female chef in the world from Restaurant magazine (though some might argue that the word "female" needn't be part of that epithet). Silverton redefined bread when she opened La Brea bakery in 1989, and has owned (and still owns) several other restaurants. Lynch has a veritable culinary empire in Boston and dozens of awards to her name.
And then there are the late, great female chefs, such as Eugénie Brazier, the first chef to earn six Michelin stars, which she did all the way back in 1933, and Julia Child, who brought gourmet cooking to the masses through her TV shows and seminal cookbooks.
So where were all of these women in the Time magazine feature?
This is not to say that anyone featured on Time's list is undeserving. The chefs include David Chang, Alex Atala, René Redzepi, Albert Adrià, Yottam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi and Dan Barber, each laudable for his original cuisine, famous restaurant(s) and approach to food and eating. Chang opened the now legendary Momofuku and is the emperor of a global culinary powerhouse. Barber is a leader in the local food movement, and the James Beard Foundation named him the top chef in America in 2009. Redzepi's restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, has been voted the best restaurant in the world for the past three years. These are no small feats.
Still, the women on the Time list are renowned for considerably less flashy culinary roles, none of which involves being in a kitchen. Aida Batlle is a coffee grower in El Salvador who emphasizes site-specific, slow-roasted coffee. Amrita Patel is the chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board in India, and Vandana Shiva leads the charge against genetically modified food. And then there's Ertharin Cousin, the head of the U.N. World Food Programme, who Time says "is responsible for feeding more people than anyone else on the planet."
Aside from Cousin, these women aren't often in the spotlight -- at least not to the extent their male chef counterparts are. They're each incredibly influential, and yet, readers haven't been satisfied by this offering from Time. None of the featured women are the type of culinary innovators who get the level of national attention enjoyed by the likes of Chang, Redzepi or Atala, whom Time labels the "Dudes of Food."
In a separate infographic for Internet and iPad readers, Time traced the culinary lineage of chefs around the world, implying that many of the greats have either worked for or been directly influenced by René Redzepi, Alain Passard, the Adrià brothers (Ferran and Albert) or Thomas Keller. Of the more than 50 chefs mentioned on this list -- including Houston's Justin Yu -- none is a woman.
Again, we have to ask: Where are all the great female chefs?
The New York Times was one of the first media outlets to respond to Time's feature, and it did so by enlisting five individuals (four of them women) to debate the exclusion. Well, the paper calls it a debate, but it was more like five people each agreeing that female chefs are overlooked by everyone from the media to investors to diners.
Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune in New York City and the author of Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, delivered one of the most interesting ideas in her essay, a portion of which is excerpted below:
There are a lot of important opportunities to raise up one's voice, to throw bricks, but this one just seems suspiciously too simplistic and low-hanging -- even for me who is always so quick to ire. I just don't like the way it perfectly sets me up like a dog on a leash: Master kicks the dog and I'm supposed to bark? I think the kicking of the dog speaks for itself.
It's a compelling notion -- that Time is essentially poking readers in anticipation of their cries. But then Hamilton asks a more important question: Where are all the neighbors who see the master kicking the dog? What do they think? What do David Chang or Thomas Keller think about being lauded on a list that left out an entire segment of their peers? What is more important, more meaningful: women standing up for other women, or the fawned-over men admitting the Time piece is unbalanced?
Hamilton concludes her brief by writing:
Waiting to get on a list, working to get on a list -- this is a time- and soul-suck with no good end. To slip the leash and leave the master standing there holding it while you meanwhile are around the corner throwing an awesome party with all of your friends is the greatest act of defiance I can think of.
Other chefs who commented for the Times response looked for a way to place blame for the fact that women do, in actuality, wield less power in the culinary world. Chef Anita Lo, who owns Annisa in Manhattan, says that investors and media consumers should be held responsible. Amanda Cohen points to the attention the media gives to male chefs over female chefs, while Alan Richman thinks the list is "accurate and, for that matter, obvious," because men in the industry hold women back. It's not the women's fault, he seems to be saying, that they just aren't up to snuff in the kitchen.
Boston Magazine immediately reached out to Barbara Lynch, a woman many thought should have been on the list, to get her take on Time's snub. Lynch said she thinks Time's editor, Howard Chua-Eoan, was clearly looking to get attention with his choices for the feature. "Not that the men in the article aren't talented," she says. "But come on, they have major PR support, and because I've chosen not to be a flash in the pan, I've worked that much harder to be on the national playing field."
In an interview with Eater about the story, Chua-Eoan addressed the omission of Lynch. He basically said that though Lynch has just as many restaurants as David Chang, Chang's are spread over the globe, while Lynch's are in Boston only. Therefore he has more cultural influence. "David is a very good entrepreneur," Chua-Eaon said, "which is something beyond just being a cook."
In a nutshell, here's the reasoning Chua-Eaon gave Eater for not including any female chefs among the "Gods":
None of them have a restaurant that we believe matches the breadth and size and basically empire of some of these men that we picked. They have the reputation and all that and it's an unfortunate thing.The female chef is a relatively recent phenomenon, except for Alice, who has been around for a long time. None of them have the recent breadth that these guys have.
We aren't sure we completely accept Chua-Eaon's excuse for the lack of -- shall we say -- goddesses on the list. We reached out to some local chefs to find out how they feel about the issue.
"I guess the interesting thing is that unless we yell and scream about it, they're not going to do it any differently," says Monica Pope, chef and owner of Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. "But if we do we're bitches."
Pope is a well-known and outspoken local food personality, and has made it clear that she's offended not only by Time's lack of acknowledgement of the great female chefs out there, but also the lack of respect she feels as a female chef here in Houston.
"People think 'Oh Monica is bitter and angry and resentful,'" Pope says. "But I'm past all that. Years ago, a local writer here did a cover story about 100 foodies in Houston. It could have been anyone -- chefs, real estate agents, whatever. Ninety-nine percent of the descriptions of the foodies were positive, but mine was 'The most failed chef in Houston.' I asked what does that mean? I was two years into t'afia. Why am I the most failed chef? You know what the response was? 'Oh, we were just being snarky.'"
Pope seems to have landed on an issue that comes up again and again when discussing women in positions of power or authority, particularly in the kitchen: a lack of respect, even from other women. In responding to Time's article, legendary restaurateur (and chef, though many won't call her that) Alice Waters told a Time reporter, "When you see women in the kitchen you think it's a domestic thing, and when you see men you think it's a creative thing. That's what we need to change."
"It's related to what women do, which is nurture and cook for their families," Pope says in agreement. "That's not cool. And with the men, it's all about the whole pig and the fire and the 'look at me.'"
Sylvia Casares, chef and owner of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, thinks that there's a business aspect to the oversights as well. Men are generally more respected in the business world, and as anyone who's owned a restaurant knows, it is first and foremost a business.
"Women have been in leadership roles everywhere for the past 20 years," Casares says. "We've been breaking the glass ceiling and educating ourselves to do things that have been male-dominated. It may be that there are no empires run by women chefs, but the food industry is very male-dominated."
Tracy Vaught, owner of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe and a partner at Prego and Trevisio, thinks the notion that women are somehow lesser than men -- in the kitchen or the boardroom -- is absurd. Vaught, along with her husband, Hugo Ortega, has been busy getting her latest venture, Caracol, up and running, but she took the time to respond to the controversy in an email. "I do feel it is ridiculous to imply or say that women aren't as good as men as cooks. How many successful women in the business do you think were asked to weigh in on the issue? Rhetorical question. It seems silly to even address it, and I am not really interested in the controversy of it all. Rather, I will just get right back to work."
That seems to be indicative of the attitude of successful female chefs and restaurateurs. Put your head down and get back to work, and maybe, someday, someone will notice.
Casares thinks the best way to make sure women start getting the credit they deserve is to not keep quiet when influential media outlets like Time drop the ball. "I think we need to be calling people like Time out on it," Casares says. "We need to be pointing it out. If you keep quiet, they'll just keep doing it. It's going to take time, but women just have to continue to push and compete and get the attention of whoever is influential in media."
Others, like Pope, think that it's going to take a lot more than a few angry women to change things. She wants to see men standing up for female chefs as well.
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"Maybe we are guilty of not standing up for ourselves and saying fuck all of y'all," Pope says. "And I'm pretty sure the articles won't be any nicer if we do say that. The world isn't equal, it's not balanced. It's still 76 cents on the dollar we're paid. And guys think that's perfectly fine."
So where do we go from here? The answer seems simple: Give women the credit they deserve. But it's not that easy.
As Alice Waters said, Time's feature didn't focus on the things that are important to many people: eating local, sustainable, seasonal food; feeding your community; and making a difference outside of the kitchen as well.
"If we celebrated food for what it should be celebrated for," Waters says, "women would just naturally rise to the top."