Restaurant magazine has given its Veuve Clicquot World "Best Female Chef" award for the last three years, but this year when the winner was announced, the news provoked as much debate as excitement. The issue wasn't who won -- a chef named Nadia Santini -- but why the award exists at all and whether awards just for women move us toward gender equality or further away from it.
On April 3rd, chef and media personality Anthony Bourdain tweeted:
Why—at this point in history—do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities? #2013 #50BestWhat?
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) April 3, 2013
In response, Grub Street's Hugh Merwin published a post asking "is the idea of a 'Best Female Chef' actually insulting to women?" Merwin noted that the words used to describe Santini -- "chatty, warm, and utterly unassuming" -- are a far cry from the adjectives like "brash," "bold" and "genius" used to describe celebrated male chefs. The takeaway from Merwin's piece seems to be that male and female chefs are approached differently and held to different standards -- so perhaps the "female chef" category makes sense.
The conversation is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the Orange Prize, awarded annually to outstanding works of fiction by women. In 2008, Tim Lott claimed in the Telegraph: "The Orange Prize is sexist and discriminatory, and it should be shunned - or, at the very least, mocked mercilessly." L.V. Anderson, writing for Slate XX, disagreed: "[The prize] simply acknowledges that women are historically (and currently) underrepresented in the annals of “serious literature,” and that talented women’s novels are often not lauded nearly as loudly and effusively as talented men’s novels."
In June 2012, Cynthia Ozick wrote a piece in the New York Times looking at both sides of the issue, concluding: "For readers and writers, in sum, the more prizes the better, however they are structured, and philosophy be damned." Jezebel's Lindy West said of the Orange Prize: "[I]t's valid—and valuable, I think—to make space for prizes like this, essentially greenhouses for talent for a marginalized group."
During the most recent Oscar season, critics discussed the merits of separate categories for actors and actresses. Lynn Elber hinted at widespread dissatisfaction with the divide: "The separate labeling of male and female performers is losing favor in the industry. Actresses often swat the distinction away by calling themselves "actors," standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts."
Back in the food world, many writers have weighed in to suggest that there is a place for women-only prize as long as men continue to dominate mainstream prizes. Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen weighed in on the "female chef" controversy in a blog post directed at Bourdain: "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."
Charlotte Druckman, author of "Skirt Steak," put it this way in a post for Grub Street: "It’s as though the entire male gender is seeded while the ladies, all unranked, have to duke it out to score a single entry slot in the tourney bracket."