Sure, cheffing is a male-dominated industry, but shouldn’t food festivals be leading the way in promoting equality?
An event at upcoming food festival Visa Wellington on a Plate insists “the future of food is female”, bringing together five woman chefs to chat about the topic with broadcaster Susie Ferguson. Meanwhile, the Auckland equivalent, American Express Restaurant Month, is currently running a series of chef collaborations that, at first glance, doesn’t include any women at all.
The Restaurant Month schedule was announced around the same time as the opening of Auckland Museum’s exhibition on gender equality, Are We There Yet?, which made the imbalance seem all the more blatant.
If we take Wellington on a Plate’s word for it, it appears we’re well on the way; but further north it seems we’re barely getting started.
Viv Beck, chief executive of central city business association Heart of the City, which runs American Express Restaurant Month, says the festival has included women in previous years and “there’s no barrier” that prevents them from doing so, it’s just that none of the chefs they approached were available. (Peter Gordon’s event at The Sugar Club earlier this week did include one woman, Pip Wylie, among the five guest chefs.)
“It’s not about choosing male or female, it’s about creating an experience that’s interesting for people to come to,” says Beck.
“In some ways it’s a reflection of the industry’s female representation. It’s not driven by any particular bias, it’s really reflecting who’s available, who’s a good fit with our particular local chefs.
“We would absolutely welcome a higher [representation]. We have had females at Restaurant Month before. We’ve had Monica Galetti, Monique Fiso, Nancy Silverton, Megan May. As I say, it’s more a reflection of the industry than any particular conscious choice.”
Does she think festivals have a responsibility to represent more women, as a potential starting point for change within the industry?
“I think it’s an interesting question and I’ve certainly had a few conversations as part of this question you’ve raised,” she says. “This is the way it’s been, it’s the way it is at the moment, but it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
“It’s like any field. If you think about board representation, that’s been a very slow process of making sure there’s diversity and women. It’s still relatively low, and you do have to start somewhere, but you also need the right person for the job. That’s why there’s such a debate around why you have quotas.
“There are things that you can start to do – even raising awareness can help people think about things a little bit differently, but it’s not necessarily a quick fix if an industry is predominantly a particular way.”
Marisa Bidois, CEO of New Zealand’s Restaurant Association, says the harsh environment of professional kitchens being seen as a male domain is in part responsible for the profession’s gender imbalance. But, she adds, the industry has a skills shortage and can’t afford for half the population to be left out of the equation.
“Whenever we’re putting together line-ups, it is something we consciously think about — how we can pull an equal gender balance into what we’re presenting and bring more women into those front-facing spokespeople roles,” she says.
“It’s something we’re always thinking about but it’s not always practical to have a line-up that includes everyone because the selection is smaller when it comes to females in those roles, sadly, but that’s absolutely changing.
“When you look at the line-up for Restaurant Month, a lot of those guys came from the era when there were probably more men in the classroom when they were learning cookery,” says Bidois.
One solution being offered in the UK is a free database of women chefs, Women of Food, which is taking registrations for publication in September. As well as providing a resource for those curating festivals and media coverage, the project hopes to attract investors in restaurants run by women.
The festival director of Wellington on a Plate, Sarah Meikle, says her team (of mainly women) makes a particular effort to see women represented at the festival.
“I think we understand absolutely that being a chef is a very difficult job and it’s very challenging for women for lots of reasons,” she says. “Even simple things like if you want to have babies and do all the things that women are able to do, being in a kitchen can be really tough,” she says.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to actually bring some female chefs because it is very male dominated – that’s not a bad thing, but we want to make sure that women are represented.”
Seeing the line-up for Auckland Restaurant Month reminded me of when, around this time last year, I nervously commented on a photo posted on social media by Capital magazine to promote a feature in their food issue, which brought “12 Wellington hospo legends in the same room at the same time”. The byline said the list was compiled by two women and the feature written by a third, but all 12 of the legends were men (John, Jeff, Mike, Geoff, Mike, Mark, Steve, Leonardo, Lorenzo, Elie, Adam and Chris).
My question about whether the piece was on the industry’s gender balance was met with a reassurance that it was “the boys this time, the girls next time!”. I contacted the editor, who told me the comment was referring to the next issue, which was going to be ‘she’ themed.
It seems to be that if a conscious effort is made to include women it happens, but despite plenty of people claiming things are changing, the default is often exclusionary.
An article on Stuff in April claimed that “New Zealand’s chef community”, represented by the New Zealand Chefs Association (NZChefs) national president Graham Hawkes, thought awards and categories specifically for women were “unnecessary”.
NZChefs has formed a team to compete at the 2020 international Culinary Olympics, and the team bio on the website states: “modern day ‘Gods Own’ brings together a culturally diverse population that creates a progressive and ever changing culinary scene”.
As the team of eight has no women on it, I’m not 100% sure what the words “modern, diverse, progressive, ever-changing” refer to in this context.
Hawkes’ comments came in the wake of controversy around the category of “World’s Best Female Chef” in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, this year won by Clare Smyth (the first British woman to hold three Michelin stars).
Smyth said it was “strange” to separate women and men, but that we don’t currently “see enough women coming through at the top and we need to do something about it”. She told the Los Angeles Times: “We do need to put a spotlight on women, and if this award is a way to give that a platform and we’re all talking about it, that’s a positive thing, right?”
As pointed out by Monica Burton in Eater, Smyth’s London restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, was not included in the top 50, “sending a clear message — according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the ‘world’s best female chefs’ aren’t as good as nearly 100 other male chefs. In fact, there are just just five women on the list of top 50 restaurants this year, and three of them share their restaurants (and titles) with men.”
A month before he passed away, the great US food critic Jonathan Gold also wrote about the awards‘ Eurocentrism and omission of top women chefs, calling it “not just odd but wrong”.
A poll within the Stuff article suggests the vast majority of people (who read the article and enthusiastically vote in Stuff polls, anyway) agree that there shouldn’t be special award categories for women as they can compete equally with men. Which of course they can – as long as they’re in the ring.
It makes sense that some women don’t want to be singled out or be seen to be given “special treatment” – they just want to get on with the job and be rewarded for their hard work. But if you were to take away those categories right now – whether they’re special festival events, awards or scholarships — it’s hard to find enough evidence that women would be adequately included.
Capital’s “hospo legends” story, American Express Restaurant Month’s Dining Series and NZChefs’ Olympic team aren’t ‘he’ themed. There was no commentary around gender at all, further normalising the image of a chef as male. A group of chefs equals a group of men, no questions asked.
Monique Fiso, who trained in Michelin-starred kitchens and is now known for her pop-up restaurant Hiakai, which showcases Māori cuisine, is a name that came up with each person I interviewed on this topic. She features on Wellington on a Plate’s discussion panel, and her success serves as the perfect example that the industry’s changing. In a recent interview, Fiso told me she finds event line-ups that don’t feature women “ridiculous” and makes a point to speak out on the issue whenever she can.
While it might be unrealistic to aim for equal representation, we can at least start with asking that women not be left out of the picture.
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