Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?

NigellaCharlotte Druckman in Gastronomica:

It started a few years ago when I noticed that Food & Wine’s annual roundup of ten Best New Chefs always listed one token woman.

And it lingered.

In 2007 Michelin awarded French chef Anne-Sophie Pic three stars, making her only the fourth woman in her country’s history to receive that honor (fifty years had passed since the last of her sex had garnered that third sparkler).2 The following year, in the United Kingdom, it was considered breaking news when ten female chefs won any Michelin stars at all. The tabloid Telegraph announced: “It could be the beginning of the end for the foul-mouthed, macho, and defiantly male master chef. The number of women with Michelin stars has nearly doubled in just 12 months.”3

Then came the 2009 James Beard Awards gala, held after the ceremony and annually assigned a theme. “Women in Food” was the chosen motif, but since only sixteen of the evening’s ninety-six nominees were, in fact, women, it seemed like a cruel joke. In the end, only two of those sixteen went home victorious, out of nineteen winners total.4

Next, Phaidon announced the publication of its forthcoming cookbook Coco: 10 World Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs, for which one Alice Waters and nine of her male comrades each picked ten young chefs whose work they admire. Collectively, these culinary authorities managed to put fewer than ten women on the roster—less than 10 percent of the total talent featured.

Finally, in Bravo tv’s Top Chef Masters competition, a paltry three out of twenty-four American “Masters” were women. Really.

The “It” in the pit of my stomach was the sinking realization that female chefs do not attain the same recognition or critical acclaim as their male peers. No one doubts women’s abilities in the kitchen. They certainly have skill and creativity. So what is the problem? This conundrum reminded me of something I’d read in an undergraduate art history class, Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her article was a watershed not just because it posed such a loaded question—a rhetorical device, as it turns out—but also because by posing that question Nochlin forced academics and feminists to challenge their own practices.