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How Does Food Media Solve Its Gender Bias Problem?

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When Time magazine dropped its "Gods of Food" issue last week, it set off an internet rage bomb. No women chefs were considered "gods" (although the feature did include four women in other fields), and an infographic depicting international spheres of influence exclusively listed male chefs. The lack of women in the Time pieces — and Eater's follow-up interview with editor Howard Chua-Eoan — motivated chefs like New York City's Amanda Cohen to respond not only to Time, but to the media's portrayal of female chefs in general.

If the restaurant world has a shortage of celebrated female chefs, what is to blame? Is it institutionalized issues blocking women on their way up? Or is it the fault of those doing the celebrating, the awards committees and festival organizers and, yes, the media? And how best to fix the issue? By making a concerted effort to include women alongside their male counterparts in lists like Time's family tree? Or by releasing women-focused features, like a corresponding "Goddesses of Food" issue, as some have suggested? Is coverage separated along gender lines a necessary evil? Or is such a separation an insult to women? Below, a look at both sides of the argument.

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What Is the Media's Responsibility?

When Eater National's Hillary Dixler discussed the editorial process that led to the male-heavy Time issue with editor Howard Chua-Eoan, he said he didn't think the media had a role to play in closing the gender gap in the restaurant world. Referencing the "social and gender roles in the world of haute cuisine," Chua-Eoan said: "If the chefs talk about it, then we can cover it. If the female chefs talk about it, we'll cover it...If there had been someone who had made a huge stir this year about how terrible it is, then perhaps." Well, people are making a "huge stir" now.

Well, people are making a "huge stir" now.

In some cases the response to Time has been to give women their own separate coverage and find so-called "Goddesses of Food." Grub Street found ten women they thought should've been in Time's issue. The Daily Meal found twenty.

But listing women separately from their male colleagues in this way doesn't solve the problem. It gives the women recognition, sure, but it's not on the level of the recognition the men receive. Lists like these honor women chefs who are influential in spite of their femaleness; it's as if they're being declared "pretty good, for girls."

Time's family tree of internationally influential chefs, on the other hand, theoretically selected chefs from the entire population, male and female. The authors just happened to decide that only male chefs were influential enough to be included.

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Nadia Santini, Elena Arzak. [Photos: Veuve Clicquot, Eater.com]

And the Best Female Chef Is...

Making separate spaces for women chefs isn't an uncommon method of trying to get them more recognition. Take S. Pellegrino's World 50 Best Restaurants organization: they have an award for World's Best Female chef that went to Italy's Nadia Santini this year and Spain's Elena Arzak last year. They also have Best Female Chef awards for their Latin American and Asian lists.

And yet the year Arzak won, her restaurant was (and continues to be) number eight on the World's 50 Best List. Santini, the reigning World's Best Female Chef, currently ranks number 74 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. How useful is it to declare someone the World's Best Female Chef if, according to the same organization, there are 73 restaurants that are considered better than hers? Would there be more value in simply making sure a good number of women's restaurants — including Santini's Dal Pescatore — ranked on the list, and not bothering with the World's Best Female Chef award? Or would that be a case of creating an artificial "quota" of women, to be fulfilled whether the restaurants deserve it or not?

Do We Need a Best Female Chef?

When Santini's award was announced earlier this year, food television person Anthony Bourdain asked on Twitter, "Why—at this point in history—do we need a 'Best Female Chef' special designation? As if they are curiosities? #2013 #50BestWhat?" His question got a lot of head nodding on Twitter, notably from chefs including Portland's Naomi Pomeroy, DC's Spike Mendelsohn, and New York's Amanda Freitag. And today, Anita Lo echoes this sentiment in the New York Times: "Often we are set apart as Female Chefs — presented as curiosities rather than being highlighted for our accomplishments." There's that word again: curiosity. Behold the woman chef. Isn't she curious?

But Amanda Cohen disagreed with Bourdain. She wrote: "As long as women are under recognized by most mainstream awards they need their own awards #necessaryevil." Cohen later expanded on her blog:

Maybe women suck. Maybe they're just not good enough. Or, maybe, the press gives a disproportionate amount of attention to men and so those are the chefs that overworked and deadline-oppressed nomination committees and food writers focus on.

I think the press have created a vicious cycle where women...get ignored by the press, and the more they get ignored the more they get left off nomination lists. The less awards they win the more ignored they are. And this has an impact on investors.

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Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2013: Jamie Malone. [Photo: Sea Change / Facebook] Jason Vincent [Photo: Huge Galdones / Eater Chicago] Michael Voltaggio [Photo: Ink] Danny Bowien [Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater] Chris Shepherd [Photo: Underbelly] Jose Enrique [Photo: Jose Enrique PR] Justin Cogley [Photo: Aubergine] Michael Hudman & Andy Ticer [Photo: Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen] Alex Stupak [Photo: Krieger]

Is it Possible to Be Gender-Blind?

Editors have rebelled against female-oriented coverage in the past. In a 2010 piece for Gastronomica entitled "Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?" writer Charlotte Druckman noted that often editors think giving "women special attention is to corroborate that an actual difference exists between a person with a penis who wields a spatula and his penis-free counterpart." And indeed, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin told Eater National as much back in 2010. When asked about the number of women on the magazine's annual Best New Chef list, Cowin said:

We get hundreds of nominations every year, and the ratio of men to women nominees is around 20:1. So we start with a teeny tiny pool of women nominees. When the editors go around the country to eat, we're looking for the best talent. We don't factor atmosphere, wine list, service, or the chef's sex into the equation.

Which is fine, but at the same time very few women get BNC nods. In fact, the magazine has named one or two women (out of ten) to its list every year for the past four years. With women consistently represented in low numbers (but never absent) each year, you're going to start hearing grumblings of tokenism whether they're warranted or not.

How to Make Media More Inclusive

Charlotte Druckman, who also wrote the book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, suggests that dedicated women-only coverage is not the solution. "Separating the women from the men is the worst possible approach to this brohaha we've found ourselves in," she tells Eater National. "You know who does such things? Extremist religious groups." Rather than separating women and men, in a statement to Eater, Druckman suggests looking at the way the media writes about food and the type of chef that fits into that model:

This isn't a "women" problem. It's an everyone problem. There are so many under-represented groups of or even individual chefs we don't hear about and should. How often do we see African American chefs featured, for example? The question is why do we keep seeing the same chefs? Why do they have a similar look and culinary point of view?

We need a broader, more expansive definition of chef. And, we need more diverse editorial coverage of food culture in general. That includes but is not restricted to stories about chefs and restaurants.

Interdisciplinary features, smart op-eds, and research-based news stories aren't included in designated food sections, mainstream food-dedicated publications, or lifestyle magazines. Instead, it's a generic mix of listicles, trend reports, round-ups of new openings, gonzo-style eating- or travel-with-chef adventures.

Do these sort of features lend themselves more to the macho league of chef bros? At the very least, there does seem to be a pervasive ambivalence towards whether or not women are included.

Chua-Eoan, in his interview with Eater, said the reason Time ended up without female chefs is because they "did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef." But how should the media negotiate this balance if not by consciously amping up coverage of women? By giving women their own, dedicated listicles and round-ups? Or merely by being sensitive to the fact that an imbalance exists? If one thing is certain, it's that in order to shake up the boys club, the media is going to have to change the membership rules.

· Time Editor Howard Chua-Eoan on Why No Female Chefs Are 'Gods of Food' [-E-]
· All Women Coverage on Eater [-E-]

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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