In November 2013, Time magazine published a special issue with David Chang, René Redzepi, and Alex Atala on the cover, titled the “Gods of Food.” Inside, the magazine listed 13 “Gods,” a chef’s family tree, and a series of articles about the key “influencers” in food today, including a piece called “The Dudes of Food,” focusing on the cover boys. No female chefs or restaurateurs made the “Gods” list, nor were any included in the modern restaurant lineage. Two female pastry chefs made it into a sidebar.
When asked why Suzanne Goin, who trained under Alain Passard on the family tree; Barbara Lynch, who had about as many restaurants as Chang; or Dominique Crenn, whose food is just as avant garde and progressive as Atala’s, weren’t on it, editor Howard Chua-Eoan told Eater’s Hillary Dixler Canavan: “We did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef. We wanted to go with reputation and influence.” Alice Waters, apparently, almost made the cut.
What followed was internet outrage, head-scratching, and a lot of finger-pointing. Why was it so hard for the writers at Time to feature females? It was lazy, shortsighted, offensive, and, frankly, ignorant, on the editors’ parts. But it also highlighted a bigger issue of representation and recognition of women in restaurants. How can women get ahead if they aren’t getting recognized?
This fall, Kerry Diamond, the co-founder of female-focused magazine Cherry Bombe and its conference Cherry Bombe Jubilee, asked if I could take a look at how far women have come four years after “Gods of Food.” Are women getting more recognition at festivals and conferences, in awards line-ups, and major media features? Where are we in terms of numbers compared to 2013?
Since her query, the Times-Picayune piece exposing the toxic culture of the John Besh Restaurant Group — and the following flurry of op-eds and commentary from luminaries and voices across the industry — has made this examination even more relevant than we originally thought. The widespread abuse women in the food world are reporting publicly and privately, is, in my mind, a byproduct of a patriarchal system. When women only hold 21 percent of head chef roles across the country, chauvinist (and dangerous) behavior can go unchecked.
Its pervasiveness reinforces the importance of investing in the talents of women, whether that’s through monetary investment, industry recognition, or simply placing them front and center at events. While the following numbers focus on recognition for women, that is just one factor in making this industry more inclusive and fair. Women should get their due on magazine covers and on panels; they should also feel safe in their places of work.
Please keep in mind that: 1) The following data covers just a handful of notable conferences and awards, and doesn’t represent the entire industry; 2) This is a binary way to look at this issue, and gender is more fluid than these simple charts imply; 3) The next step should be to look at people of color, another underrepresented group in this industry. It simply requires a lot more work, considering how much of the onus is on chefs to self-identify.
Here’s the progress (or lack thereof) since 2013:
The Food Event Circuit
South Beach Wine & Food Festival chefs
New York City Wine & Food Festival chefs
Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival chefs
Food & Wine Classic in Aspen chefs
Feast Portland chefs
Cook it Raw chefs
Meadowood’s 12 Days of Christmas chefs
Harvard Science and Cooking lecturers
Charleston Wine & Food 2018 (new since 2013)
Welcome Conference 2017 (new since 2013)
Note here: The Welcome Conference in 2017 featured 10 male speakers, two female speakers, and a panel with Sean Brock and three female Waffle House workers.
James Beard Award Chef finalists
Chef’s Table episode protagonists
Food & Wine Best New Chefs
Bon Appetit Hot 10 restaurant list, chefs and owners featured
These numbers reflect the main chefs and owners called out by name in Bon Appetit's write-ups of the winners. If a restaurant had a female chef or partner but only the man was written about, we counted it as male representation.
Eater Young Guns
Eater’s 2017 restaurant reviews, chefs and owners
And a note on World’s 50 Best:
Beyond the data:
The data isn’t entirely encouraging, but there’s some positive context to know outside of the raw numbers. After covering this industry for 10 years, I’ve noticed a relatively recent shift in attitudes over the last two years (even more so since the 2016 election).
We’re at a point now where it would be almost scandalous for a magazine like Bon Appetit or Food & Wine to run a list of best new chefs or restaurants that featured majority white men. I’m seeing more awards committee chairs and media elite take intentional steps to be more inclusive in what they do. Now, they’re more likely to notice if they’ve organized a panel of all men or orchestrated an awards category with no women. While reps for Michelin and the World’s 50 Best list say they aren’t to blame for a lack of female chefs in their coverage, they now get publicly called out for that line of thinking.
Make these pie charts 50/50 by 2021:
Still, there are important steps men and women in the media, conference world, and awards circuits can do to improve these charts over the next four years:
- No best female awards categories. It’s demeaning.
- No best female lists. To me, these are fine for a publication focused on women (see Cherry Bombe or Glamour’s Women of the Year), but a cop-out for general-interest publications that want an easy way to feel like they are shining a light on an underrepresented group.
- Push writers, editors, critics, videographers, and content creators of all kinds to include women and people of color in everyday reporting, not just tentpole features and reviews. Call the best person, not the easiest person to reach.
- Broaden the idea of what we celebrate and fixate on to get beyond the expected, the flashy, the high-end.
- Push awards committees to put women into every single category.
- Push event organizers to include women in every panel, every event or demo. Refuse to speak or participate unless more women are there. Offer to share your contacts with organizers.
- Celebrate when people do it right.
And what about men and women in power in restaurants? There’s so much that can be done to make restaurants better workplaces for women, in terms of flexible hours for parents, livable wages, parental leave, and health care. But an easier start: Share investors and references, and mentor women and people of color. Enact zero-tolerance policies for sexual harassment and sexualized talk.
If the silver lining to the “Gods of Food” episode was the open discussion about discrimination and bias against women, the upshot of the John Besh revelations (and the sexual harassment stories that will emerge over the next year) is that people around the industry are finally saying “enough.” Enough of these sexualized workplaces. Enough of these token awards for talented women. Enough of the same faces, again and again and again.
This data was originally presented at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee in San Francisco on October 14.
Vince Dixon and James Park contributed to the data gathering for this piece.