“For the last 10 years of my career, I’ve been asked, ‘What is it like to be a female chef?’” said chef Clare Smyth while accepting the award for best female chef at last week’s the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in Bilbao, Spain. “To which I reply: ‘I’m not sure what you mean, because I’ve never been a male chef.’”
Smyth is the chef at Core restaurant in London, the first kitchen run by a woman to earn three Michelin stars. Although she used her acceptance speech to address the need for chefs of all backgrounds to experience equality and opportunity in the kitchen, her opening remarks highlight the issue of the best female chef award’s very existence.
“We don’t need to separate male and female chefs,” Smyth recently told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s complete nonsense. But we do need to talk about this issue. 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?”
The best female chef award was established in 2011. In a news release announcing the awards, the World’s 50 Best organization writes that the award was created “to promote diversity in the culinary sphere and provide the opportunity for female role models to inspire future generations of young women to reach for the heights of their chosen profession.” The World’s 50 Best awards are chosen by a group of more than 1,000 chefs and writers brought together by the British company William Reed Business Media. Although there’s an award for best female chef, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list itself remains almost exclusively male-dominated. Of the 100 restaurants on this year’s list, five are led by female chefs: Pia León of Central in Peru, Elena Arzak of Arzak in Spain, Ana Ros of Hiša Franko in Slovenia and Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme in New York. Smyth’s restaurant, Core, was not included on the list.
This year, discussion of gender equality on the list was amplified by the absence of Dominique Crenn’s San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn. She was last year’s winner of the best female chef award.
But Smyth sees Core’s absence from the list as understandable. “Everyone’s saying, ‘How can Core not be featured in the Top 100, but you are the best female chef in the world?’” she said. “My restaurant opened 10 months ago. It’s clearly documented everywhere how the list is set out over the last 18 months, of which Core has probably only been open about eight or nine. My career started 20 years ago.”
Smyth also recognizes that there’s a larger problem of female representation in the kitchen, beyond the awards.
“I think that generally people are crying out and calling for more women on the list, but if you look at the percentage [of women-run restaurants], they’re not there,” Smyth said. “It’s not to say that, ‘Oh, that’s OK or that’s acceptable.’ It’s not acceptable, but we just have to keep working to promote our women in the industry, so that we get more women coming in and then support them to get to the top level.”
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that a nearly 40% of cooks in America are women, less than 20% are in positions as high as chef or head chef. Thus, there may be fewer female chefs helming the sort of kitchens that the World’s 50 Best list celebrates: largely expensive, tasting-menu-oriented, modern fine-dining institutions.
“It’s not the list’s fault that there’s not [more women running kitchens],” Smyth said. “We have a few more [women] front of house now. It’s getting better, but in the kitchens we still struggle to find great young women. We just need more, and we need to encourage more and more to come in.”
One possible answer is a shift toward scholarships in place of, or in addition to awards. The World’s 50 Best organization introduced a scholarship this year meant to support up-and-coming young chefs with opportunities to stage at some of the best restaurants in the world — one of which is Crenn’s Atelier Crenn.
And Smyth thinks this might be the last year we see a best female chef award.
“They [the World’s 50 Best organization] are trying to come up with things, and the only thing that we could come up with was, rather than saying it’s a female chef award, make it a special award for someone that isn’t reflected in the list that you feel deserves special mention and attention to give them the spotlight. It could be a restaurant on a continent where the 50 Best judges aren’t going or someone in the jungle somewhere working on a great social cause, but they could give an award, which is going to highlight a social issue.”