By now it's an all too familiar sight. You spy a "Best Restaurants" story on the cover of Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, piled on the countertop mail hill between the light bill and Chinese restaurant coupons. The photo shows 15 chefs, all men, right down to the Minnesota-fashionable plaid shirts and hoodies. They chat in comfortable, man-spread repose.
You could almost miss it, but once again: Females forgotten.
See also: The Twin Cities' Most Humble Chefs
The morning I saw it online, I received a flurry of messages from women in the industry. They were angry, outraged, offended, and they didn't quite know what to say about it, except that this is a big deal.
Much of the response placed the blame on the media for these continual sausagefest-centric Best Chefs and Best Restaurants lists. The MSP cover evokes the Time magazine cover from 2013, when a 13 Gods of Food story eschewed any goddesses. It aroused the same ire this cover photo has, though the full list of MSP 50 Best Restaurants did include some female-owned and -operated establishments.
Was the omission of women on the cover simply a miscalculation? One the magazine would do differently if they had it to do over? As in every field and every job, the media makes mistakes. The only difference: Ours can be painfully, glaringly public.
Conventional wisdom says that there simply aren't very many top female chefs, and if we choose to pluck one or two women and hold them up as tokens, the result is disingenuous and untrue. But female chefs are crying bullshit. There are lots and lots of female chefs, they say, damn good ones, and the media is choosing to ignore them.
In response to the Time article, Amanda Cohen, internationally famous (and female) chef of Manhattan's Dirt Candy, lambasted the author of the piece, Howard Chua-Eoan, in an Eater response: "...like most editors, he spends so much time typing that he can't get out into the world like the rest of us and see what's really going on. Instead, he's trapped in a bubble... seeing the same chefs over and over."
As a member of the food media, I will admit that we can indeed be insular and self-referential -- particularly in this age of ever-quicker, shorter, "content"-driven media.
Do we field press releases and scan social media feeds and check in on all the other food sites daily before we begin our own, competitive take on the latest scoop? Yes. Do we get tired of writing about the same guys over and over again? Yes. Do readers get tired of reading about them? We have to imagine.
I will personally issue a mea culpa for my own guilt in participating in exactly this brand of snake-eating-its-tail reporting.
But like any story, there is more than one side, and pointing the finger in only one direction is too simplistic.
In the 10 years I have been writing about food, I have interviewed countless women about their experiences in the kitchen -- why they chose this field, why they stay, why they sometimes choose to leave, and why there are, indeed, fewer female chefs.
I have heard endless tales of women having to prove themselves doubly in an industry where proving oneself the first time around is brutal enough for even those with the strongest constitutions.
Bad-assery is a well-documented requirement of the testosterone-rich, frat-like kitchen environment, and the women who thrive within are at the pinnacle of that bad-ass genre. But it can make you weary, and we can indeed tire of proving ourselves doubly, only to continue to be overlooked.
Even Gabrielle Hamilton, one of the country's most famous female chefs, owner of Manhattan's Prune and author of the wildly popular Blood, Bones & Butter, recounts a tale of being heavily pregnant, on her hands and knees in the midst of a brutal brunch rush, wiping pancake batter from the floor and thinking about her other baby, asleep at home without her. In that moment she thought "being bad-ass is the last thing I am interested in being."
I have watched this phenomenon for too long to consider it an anomaly: Women in food tend to go to work relatively quietly, sternly concentrating, doing and finishing the job, and then doing it all over again, not stopping off at the tattoo shop to get "CHEF" emblazoned across their knuckles.
Women are also more likely to operate in an environment of mutual respect and collaboration -- not qualities that easily translate to being a "God of Food."
But is it less god (or goddess)-like to toil in relative obscurity, taking care to preserve tradition or execute classic skill to absolute precision (Koshiki Yonemura)? Does ethnic food count (Christina Nguyen)? What about pastry (Michelle Gayer)? Is it a requirement to wield a tweezers, a Paco Jet, French technique, and an interesting apron for consideration?
Answers usually lie in the most obvious clue: White males dominate the restaurant industry because white males dominate America.
Unless we are prepared to admit that women are somehow less creative, interesting, smart, skilled, or bad-ass, then we must admit that there is a systemic problem playing out in the kitchen.
What is "the best," and how did it get that way? I'm thinking a lot about that today, and I hope others are too, including all of the talented male chefs who got the honor and the privilege of a cover story.
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