Finding role models beyond the pass

11 July, 2017 by Elizabeth Meryment

When you’re talking about the world’s best chefs, women are outnumbered – you can’t argue with that. But perhaps it’s time we look outside the kitchen for inspiration, writes Elizabeth Meryment.

Amid the cacophony of congratulation and self-congratulation that erupted amid this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, a sole voice dared to shout down some of the excess cheering. Writing on the American food website Eater, Ryan Sutton described the list as part of a “troubling narrative”.

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“That narrative reveals itself very clearly when you spend literally half a second looking at the data,” wrote Sutton, Eater’s chief New York food critic. “The World’s 50 Best List, routinely criticised for its lack of female-run restaurants, its European focus, and its abundance of exorbitant tasting menu spots, has produced yet another list of male-dominant, European-heavy, expensive tasting menu restaurants.”

And to wit, the two Australian restaurants on the list – both, by pure coincidence no doubt, located in Victoria where the awards were this year held in a “coup” underwritten by Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria – are male-run and offer expensive European-style tasting menus. Case closed.

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Sutton’s take down of the world’s most famous food list was itself criticised for not pointing out the obvious reason for the poor representation of women is because few, or apparently no, women run restaurants of the calibre of this year’s winner, the New York institution Eleven Madison Park, or 2016’s victor, Italy’s Osteria Francescana.

So perhaps the larger question is not why aren’t women better represented on the list, but why aren’t they better represented in venues that are world beating, inventive, expensive and creative? The more brutal question might be: are women lesser chefs than men?

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These are questions I last year put to Nadine Levy Redzepi, the wife of Danish chef Rene Redzepi – a man who topped the list twice before this year closing his Copenhagen venue, Noma – when she was in Australia for Noma’s Sydney pop-up.

“The only reason why women leave [high-end restaurants] is because they have children,” she replied frankly. “You don’t want to be away from your children. If you work in the kitchen, if you start at 10 o’clock in the morning, you’re still not home until 10 o’clock at night. If you can’t see them, then why have them?”

It might not be easy to hear that women leave the profession to care for their offspring, while men continue to endure working conditions that are neither family nor life-friendly, but it’s a bald fact and we might as well accept it, or set about to right the imbalance.

Or possibly it is time to start looking outside the commercial kitchen and to elsewhere in the food and hospitality industries for our heroes, and, yes, heroines.

Lately I have been working with a number of food businesses that are not restaurants, helping them with content and strategy, and something interesting has occurred to me: this is a sector almost universally dominated by creative, talented and ambitious women.

These are women who are disinterested in the burden of running restaurants, but who instead, pour their talents into other areas of the food industry – growing, creating, manufacturing and importing beautiful, high quality food products, running farms or properties and owning and managing small to large businesses that produce products and services that keep restaurants afloat.

None of them do it for fame or accolades, but because they love what they make, enjoy the businesses they run, and usually manage to get home in time for dinner with their families.

While there are a few schemes supporting women in small business, there is little support or media around women in small food business. There should be. I guarantee most of these women will still be running their businesses long after many restaurants on the World’s 50 Best list have disappeared.

Elizabeth Meryment was a Daily and Sunday Telegraph food critic for eight years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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