Women in the food world, from chefs to editors to PR mavens, discuss what can be done to fix it.
Writing about why (and what) one writes is the most insufferable form of navel-gazing. But if Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen can regularly take to our medium to elucidate the ways in which the media has enabled the devaluing of female chefs, it is well past time we pull up our big editor pants and do the same.
Yes, we adopt a proper posture of outrage when Michelin claims it “can’t do anything” about the lack of starred, woman-run restaurants on its list, or when the World’s 50 Best persists in doling out its misbegotten “Best Female Chef” awards to back-pat those knife-yielding curiosities with XX chromosomes. And, increasingly, we try to exercise due diligence when composing listicles, booking panels, or organizing year-end honorifics by ensuring the parade of white male participants is broken up by the presence of one or two women. (Of course, our jobs are made that much easier in banner years like 2016, when high profile chefs like Missy Robbins manage to kick their own way through the glass ceiling.)
From editors and writers to photographers and PR mavens, it is striking to note that food media itself is comprised primarily of females. So why do stark disparities persist when women largely hold the keys to the kingdom in terms of coverage?
“Press likes to report on what’s brand new, and there’s constant newness coming from people with money and power and influence who have the funding to constantly revamp a restaurant, redo a tasting menu, and open a fast-casual arm of their business," says Sierra Tishgart, senior editor of Grub Street. Those people, more often than not, are the same group of successful male chefs we continue to read about over and over, she says.
“So often in journalism, we're rushed to source quotes and recipes so we can push out stories, and end up including chefs and restaurants that can get back to us most quickly,” adds Time Inc.’s senior food and drinks editor, Kat Kinsman. “Meaning, those who can afford PR teams.”
A culture fueled by constant content creation and clicks—which props up the narrative of combative kitchens and tempestuous, tatted-up bad boys as the standard of excellence in restaurants—has sidelined go-it-alone chefs like Alex Raij of La Vara, Txikito, and El Quinto Pino, who posits that men are inherently better at selling themselves and packaging their own stories.
“I try to create opportunities for people to notice what we’re doing, but I don’t do things to be noticed. Whereas I think men are very comfortable talking about skills they might not have and truths that aren’t true,” she says. When male chefs take on adversity, the press pays attention, but Raij believes her own challenges, including a legal battle to get her name and restaurants back, went under-covered. And that's not to mention those women who choose to start families, she says. “So many women in this business have had a child, and the story of that birth could be extremely traumatic, but I don’t hear women whining in the press about their health issues. Because that’s what it would be considered: whining.”
“We always try harder to be inclusive in who we're quoting and featuring at every level,” says Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt. “Our big tentpole list of up-and-coming talent in the industry must be at least 50 percent female. Our critics have spreadsheets updated monthly showing them how many women-owned or women-cheffed restaurants they've reviewed, with another tab for people of color. And if our awards or guides don't feature enough women, we stop, regroup, and look harder.”
“It's very rare for us to write a major feature-length national profile of a white male chef,” she adds. “I'm just guessing, but I think a male editor wouldn't have a problem assigning a high profile white male writer to cover a high profile white male chef for a major national feature, and I'm just not going to do that.”
It’s certainly worth noting that while women hold top editorial positions at multiple influential media outlets, publishers themselves, particularly of national consumer magazines, are primarily male, a fact that could drive the notion that male chefs are more salable.
Only in the latest news cycles have some female chefs seen a shift.
“I’ve been doing this for 29 years, and the first 25 I didn’t do a good enough job of telling my own story—not because I didn’t own it, but because I thought it wasn’t polite,” says Martha Hoover of Indianapolis’ Patachou Inc. hospitality group. “So until very recently, we hardly received any attention from the national press. Not because we weren’t a bar-setting company, but because we’re female led and were undervalued as a result. I do think an awareness has set in over the past six months or so, and everyone is on a hyper fix.”
Even publicists—whose advocacy is a budget-busting luxury that precious few chefs can afford—have begun to examine their role in creating a lopsided playing field, recognizing their profound responsibility as gatekeepers to the press.
And while most agree it’s vital to continue discussing and writing about gender disparity, sexual harassment has proven to be a significantly thornier issue. There's a line the media must walk between exposing assault and unwittingly perpetrating the idea of women as victims, further underlining the fact of their sex rather than their status as chefs.
“As a journalist, making it known that you are an ally and a safe space is important. But so is regularly profiling women that maybe aren't on the level of April Bloomfield and Dominique Crenn, but who are on the rise,” Tishgart says. “Grand exposés are valuable, but in order for true change to be sustainable, it entails being mindful in small, quiet ways.”
In other words, it’s equally imperative we journalists check our egos at the door by resisting the hunt for sporadic, splashy investigations in favour of quieter, behind-the-scenes work. It starts with a bit of self-editing—are our sources for stories all men? Is there anything left to be said, really, about a routinely reviewed restaurant or repeatedly lionized chef? A few of us entered this field to be aggregators, it is high time to fully embrace our beat. And when it comes to the impact of women in food, there’s a wealth of untapped stories to explore.