By Kary Vannice
March is traditionally “The Women’s Issue” here at The Eye. And this year, the staff decided to focus the majority of our articles on Mexican women in the culinary industry. However, one unarguable fact comes up in every “Top Mexican Chef” Google search – the majority of chefs listed are men. How can this be in a country where women so clearly dominate the household kitchen? Why don’t more women rise up to the ranks of Top Chef in Mexico or even on the global stage?
María Canabal, a food journalist and founder of Parabere Forum, dedicated to promoting the work of women in restaurant kitchens around the world, put the numbers in perspective. Canabel points out that “93% of the people who cook at home are women. 48% of the graduates of culinary schools are women. 39% of the cooks in restaurants are women, but only 18% of the women in the industry are head chefs.”
In 2018, Kantar Worldpanel Mexico, a consumer behavior research center, reported that men do the majority of the cooking in only 8% of Mexican households, and yet 15 of the “Top 20 Chefs of Mexico” are men. Consistently, ranking after ranking, 80% of the most recognized and acclaimed Mexican chefs are male.
As María Canabal puts it, “Talent has no gender. Either you have it, or you don’t.” So why the gender gap in handing out accolades? Surely, with nearly 50% of culinary school graduates being female, there has to be more than 20% of female chefs with talent equal to that of male chefs. If culinary distinction is based on talent alone, the numbers just don’t add up.
Are there differences between the dishes prepared by a man and those by a woman? Is it even about the food? Perhaps it’s more about the industry of culinary arts and its history?
Research shows it’s actually a bit of all of the above.
Decades ago, many culinary schools admitted disproportionately fewer women than men, some admitting only 10% female students. Many of today’s Top Chefs are older males, so it could be said that this is a contributing factor. However, not all of the top recognized chefs are classically trained. Another major factor in becoming an acclaimed chef is one must have a place to showcase their talent, in other words, a restaurant. However, when female chefs approach investors for a startup restaurant, they are often turned away, whereas male chefs often get the backing they seek based on the belief that men are better in business than women.
Not only does one need a well-backed restaurant, chefs who want to be recognized also need to be active in mainstream and online social media. Rising culinary stars must become comfortable in the limelight, spending time in front of a camera and giving interviews for print and television, all of which take time. Female chefs with families often have less time to dedicate to PR than single male chefs do. And the industry takes note of chefs the media is “buzzing” about. When asked about the role media plays in “making it” in the industry, one chef put it this way, “It’s hard to know which comes first – great food that attracts media attention, or great PR that attracts media attention pushing you to be a better chef.”
In today’s world, to be considered for high-profile awards or high-profile media coverage in the culinary world, you have to be a chef capable of presenting a certain kind of narrative. So, it could be said that both history and the industry have stacked the decks against female chefs, but what about the question of whether there are differences between the dishes that a man prepares and those of a woman?
From a purely culinary perspective, the answer is “no.” However, look deeper into the motivation, inspiration, and intent behind the dishes prepared and the answer may be “yes.” Men, it could be said, picked up the ladle for a very different reason than did women. They aspired not to nourish, but to create and conquer.
French chef Hèlène Darroze said of the difference between men and women chefs, “They want to teach their techniques, show something new, be the first. We cook to generate an experience, to care, and this is a very different approach.”
Traditionally, in the world of haute cuisine, more daring and avant garde cooking is more rewarded and awarded than traditional methods of cooking. “Women don’t usually do extreme cooking because they don’t seek to assert themselves through the act of cooking. For them food is nutrition long before stupor, supremacy, jealousy or envy,” Italian chef Licia Granello says of female chefs.
Could this be the ultimate differentiating factor? Men simply approach the job differently, with a different aim in mind and, thus, seek recognition more than women because they are driven by a different ambition?
French chef Olivier Roellinger certainly agrees. He is famously quoted as saying, “All kitchens in the world are feminine, they were created by grandmothers and mothers. But Spanish cuisine only began to be talked about when men began to cook.” Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that women are disproportionately under represented in the upper echelons of culinary culture. Whether it’s industry, history, or ego, women have a long way to go before they gain equality in the world’s top kitchens.
The online news outlet Chefs 4 Estaciones published a beautifully written article on this topic in Spanish noting that forty years ago, our books were the cookbooks of our grandmothers, mothers, great-aunts, and aunts. Without women in gastronomy, there would be no roots, no inheritance, no tradition in the kitchen. Definitely, much of what culinary cooks know today is thanks to women. They deserve our thanks and our tribute. And an equal place in the world of the professional restaurant.