On Wednesday, British chef Clare Smyth was named the world’s best female chef, an honor bestowed each year by World’s 50 Best, a restaurant-ranking organization. And, as has happened the past few years, a chorus of voices arose to ask the question: Why does this award exist?
Awarding a “best female chef” might seem on the surface as if it’s aligned with the cultural zeitgeist this year, given the restaurant industry’s recent and very public questioning of how it treats women, and why few of them have risen to the highest ranks. But the award has long been irksome to women in the business, some of whom say it’s a cover for the organization’s lack of women in the overall rankings.
San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn, who won the award in 2016, has long expressed her frustration with the concept of gendered awards.
“If you give a chef a female award, you’re going to alienate that gender to the other gender,” she told The Washington Post in an interview before her “Women in Food” dinner series at Petit Crenn in San Francisco, the day before Smyth won the award. “We are not a sport. They’re treating us as if we are a sport.”
Based on her biography, it’s clear that Smyth has succeeded in cutthroat, male-run kitchens — she’s a protege of the constantly furious British chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay, and she spent 13 years in his restaurants. She was the only female chef in Britain to earn three Michelin stars when she ran Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. She went on to open her London restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, with a tasting menu that showcases her modern take on French cuisine. She is the first British woman to win the award.
“We still have a real lack of women recognized at the top of the industry and we have to do something about that — we’re not going to change it by ignoring it,” said Smyth in a blog post on the World’s 50 Best site. “Sometimes you have to go over the top by recognizing women and giving them a platform so that we can really start to change things and re-correct the balance. There are lots of young women coming through in top kitchens across the globe and for me this award is for them.”
Smyth is right that representation matters. There are panel discussions and awards juries and “best of” lists that are produced with not a single female face on them — or person of color, for that matter. That lack of visibility contributes to a system that passes up underrepresented talent, which in turn makes it harder for women in the industry to launch and run their own businesses. Some female chefs, including last year’s winner, Ana Ros, think that because the experience of a female chef truly is different, it should be in its own category.
“I had chef friends who said I should go on the stage and say I am not accepting it,” she told Bloomberg. “I said: ‘Did you ever say no to an award?’ So here is my explanation. It is very clear for a woman in a male world, it’s always going to be difficult. A woman has so many roles — as a mother, as a wife, as a lover, as a housekeeper — and then you try to fit in 14 or 16 hours working.”
On the other hand, “best female” awards put women in a separate category than — it’s implied — real (read: male) chefs, so offering a female-only award might just be a way for an organization to appear as if it is doing the right thing. Only three women made last year’s World’s 50 Best list. Instead of doing the work to elevate women in the industry — and, consequently, to give them a better shot in the main rankings — these groups separate the women out into their own awards as a way of overcompensating. It’s the same reason that some take issue with any list of female chefs, such as a recent one from USA Today that Eater dubbed “Binders Full of Women, Restaurant Edition.”
Not to mention, the World’s 50 Best award is doled out with inconsistent criteria. The woman who wins “Best Female Chef” typically isn’t the highest-ranking woman on the main list; in 2017, that would be Elena Arzak, whose San Sebastian, Spain, restaurant ranked number 30. Crenn, the best female chef in the world in 2016, didn’t even make it onto the top 100 list that year. In 2017, her restaurant Atelier Crenn was No. 83.
“You can promote women in a different way,” Crenn said. “It’s stupid. A chef is a chef.”
We’ll find out whether Smyth’s restaurant ranks on the 2018 list when it is published on June 19.
More from Food: