Cracking the glass ceiling: Are female chef awards empowering or oppressive?

Categories are difficult for any awards ceremony. They place boxes onto a world that is messy and fluid, sometimes gloriously so. Almost more difficult than asking how to categorise things is asking why we categorise them, and the next step is to interrogate whether those categories are working as they should. We took a close look at female chef awards and interviewed local chefs to find out what they think –  are these awards positively impacting the industry or just sexism in disguise?

Are female chef awards empowering or oppressive?

Are female chef awards empowering or oppressive? Photo by Kevin Mccutcheon on Unsplash.

William Drew, group editor of the World’s 50 Best, justifies the need for their controversial Best Female Chef award as upliftment by way of exposure, calling it “affirmative feminism in action”. “We believe the existence of this gender-specific category actually helps to redress an imbalance, while simultaneously recognising that the world of restaurant kitchens remains a male-dominated sphere,” says Drew.

It’s an admirable intention, considering equality lies not in treating the historically disadvantaged equally, but rather in helping them into equal footing. And there are women in the industry who agree that female chef awards can’t be eliminated until there is a level playing field between men and women. But is the Best Female Chef award – and other awards in the same vein – actually helping, and is it doing enough?

Sexism in the kitchen

Women face staggering sexism in restaurant kitchens. In fact, women working in the restaurant industry report more sexual harassment than in any other industry. That’s not just problematic, it’s also significant because this is where inequality begins. Of the women drawn to cooking professionally (a number already lessened by those who see it as oppressive, thanks to being forced into the kitchen domestically), so many are either aware of how women are treated in restaurant kitchens and don’t want to be subjected to it, or they’ve already endured it and left.

Sexism prevents women's advance in the field in many ways.

Sexism prevents women’s advance in the field in many ways. Photo by Max Delsid on Unsplash.

Furthermore, it prevents their advance in the field; they’re always on the outside looking in on the boys’ club. Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn, chef at The Chefs Table and winner of the 2017 Rising Star Award, has experience with this: “Over the years I’ve often been the only female on a top-level team, and some male general managers or front of house have issues with a female chef. It’s as if you should be quiet and not have an opinion. That’s been my hardest struggle.”

Chef Kayla-Ann Osborn. Photo supplied.

Women also have to work twice as hard to rise to the level of executive chef. Chef Jackie Cameron, of Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Hilton, says she warns her students of this: “I tell my female students that you have to work harder and faster to prove yourself.” She also points out another effect of sexism resulting in women not gaining prominence as executive chefs: “Mostly, female students who join a kitchen get put into pastry. Why not the hot kitchen? There needs to be more balance and equality.”

All of this contributes to the scarcity of restaurants run by women on the World’s 50 Best list. And, unfortunately, one award geared towards driving customers towards a single restaurant doesn’t change any of these grassroots issues.

Labels and selective correction

We live in a time when the harm of labels is finally being recognised. An award with the word female in the title is exclusionary to trans women, and there are also those who don’t identify with a gender at all, an issue the Emmy Awards faced in 2017 when non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon questioned the necessity of submitting as either an actor or actress. Chantel Dartnall, chef at Top 10 Restaurant Mosaic at The Orient and winner of The Best Chef Lady 2017 in The Best Chef Awards, weighed in on the controversy: “I don’t see why they should differentiate. We do exactly the same job and face the same challenges. Anyone entering the industry understands the sacrifices – men do too. So it’s almost pointless to differentiate.”

Chef Chantel Dartnall at The Best Chef Awards. Photo supplied.

It also raises another question: Why do women need to be singled out for ‘affirmative action’ but not any other historically disadvantaged group? There’s no ‘Best Black Chef’ award – you could argue it’s because of oversight, but it seems more likely that it’s simply because it would cause an outcry. And it’s difficult to imagine anyone being placated by the same justification – that it’s for the upliftment of the disadvantaged. In both cases, the qualifier creates an Other. Margot Janse, award-winning chef and judging convenor for the 2018 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards, emphasises the Othering effect of the award: “By highlighting female chefs, you’re actually damaging what we want. It’s only valid if there’s also a category for Best Male Chef. As long as women keep accepting these awards, we’re saying we’re not equal. The idea needs to be rejected.”

Chef Margot Janse. Photo supplied.

Kayla-Ann agrees: “With no offence to anyone who’s won these awards, we’re not doing ourselves any justice by supporting separate categories. This isn’t a sport, there aren’t different physicalities. It’s about your palate, the way you run your kitchen, and the way your mind works.”

Other solutions

There’s an unavoidable knee-jerk reaction to the ‘female’ qualifier. (Think about your title and how you would feel having a qualifier attached to an award when someone else was getting the same award, sans qualifier.) Qualifiers often feel like a ‘but’ – ‘you’re a great chef but only when compared to other women’. It’s why the Best Female Chef award is so controversial. Famed chef, food writer and television personality Anthony Bourdain tweeted his distaste for the award all the way back in 2013: “Why – at this point in history – do we need a ‘Best Female Chef’ special designation? As if they are curiosities?”

Being a chef is about your palate and the way you run your kitchen

Being a chef is about your palate and the way you run your kitchen. Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash.

Furthermore, the winner of the Best Female Chef award often doesn’t make it onto the World’s 50 Best list, sometimes not even appearing in the top 100. Eater summarises it best: “The omission creates the impression that the 50 Best organization doesn’t consider what it believes to be the finest woman chef in the world to be as noteworthy as the 100th best male chef.”

As with our tipping story, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. Sexism in any industry is too widespread, deeply rooted and complex to fix using any one solution – nor is it up to awards ceremonies only. Conditions within restaurants need to change, diverse judging of restaurants needs to be in place (something the World’s 50 Best has taken steps towards), and archaic categories need to be re-looked. It’s no simple issue but when it comes to the Best Female Chef award, we think chef Jackie Cameron summarises the matter succinctly: “In the kitchen I’m a chef, and cheffing is not gender specific.”

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do female chef awards belong in the past or do they still play a helpful, if problematic, role in the industry? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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