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?
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.”
Chef Alex Raij of La Vara, Txikito, and El Quinto Pino
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.”
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 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.
“I don’t hear women whining in the press about their health issues. Because that’s what it would be considered: whining.”
“For years, we’ve offered reduced or free services to causes and people and products we believe in, but we could do more,” admits Becca Parrish, founder of BeccaPR. “We could be more proactive by charging ourselves to bring more diversity to each and every event we throw—to ensure that those we’ve invited around that dinner table or to mill around sipping cocktails are representative of the food world at large, not just our rarefied piece of it.”
She expresses frustration in seeing her female clients regularly pigeonholed, urged to relay their experiences as a woman in the kitchen rather than just a figure in the industry. But she predicts that until truly equal representation is achieved—in both restaurants and in the media—it will remain an immutable part of the conversation.
“I was recently invited to join a panel about creativity and tradition, and the entire focus shifted to safe workplaces,” recalls Raij, herself frustrated. “Women are pressed on hot button topics, while men talk about what they’re making for dinner. I’m asked about the new minimum wage, and Jamie Bissonnette gets to show off his new beef dish. And all this attention to the sudden rise of the all-day restaurant? If you took a moment to look back, you’d find that concept actually gained traction years ago, thanks to women like Jessica Koslow of Sqirl.”
Not that certain outlets aren’t taking mindful, deliberate steps to follow the breadcrumb trail, credit appropriate sources, and shift the overall dynamic. In fact, it’s a paramount priority at Eater, which aims to change the way it acknowledges and awards excellence, starting with debunking the notion that high end, Michelin-baiting tasting rooms are inherently more interesting than unassuming, accessible establishments.
Eater Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt
“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.
“Yet no one ever complains about covering overweight, balding, sausage-fingered dude chefs. That’s a fact.”
Carla Lalli Music, food director at Bon Appétit, says she works in an environment where idea vocalization and problem solving are encouraged. “But I’ve also been in many conversations where female chefs were dismissed for coverage because they weren’t photogenic enough, or were prioritized because they’re great-looking,” she says. “Yet no one ever complains about covering overweight, balding, sausage-fingered dude chefs. That’s a fact.”
As an NYC-based culinary and lifestyle photographer, Liz Clayman has a front row seat to the ceaseless preoccupation with female physicality, which is why she wholeheartedly affirms that being a woman has shaped the way she photographs women in the industry. “I am more emphatic towards women, and I couldn’t help this if I tried. I will take greater care to retouch a woman’s portrait than a man’s—not because they ‘need’ it more or are more self-conscious, but because people judge women harshly.”
That makes her one of many women determined to affect change from the inside. Kerry Diamond, co-founder of the exclusively female-focused Cherry Bombe, is most certainly another who has used her own experience as a restaurateur to inform the way she uplifts women in the industry.
“The restaurant world is in a weird place right now. Celebrity chefs are falling apart, the pay is terrible, sexual harassment went unchecked for a long time, and forget about childcare, maternity leave, and health insurance. The guys were in charge for a long time, and this is their legacy. Maybe if women were in charge it would be a different story,” she says. “Owning a restaurant especially opened my eyes to the realities—looking around my own neighborhood and it was all male chefs and restaurant owners. Lilia and the Beatrice Inn didn’t get Michelin stars this year? That says everything you need to know.”
Chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and the John Dory
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 favor 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? As 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.