Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where the Great Women Chefs Are

In spite of the fact that we are a website devoted to women and food, and all of our articles are written by women – a chef, a cheesemonger, a sommelier, a food stylist, an architect and a filmmaker – we have chosen to spend most of our time celebrating the astonishing women in our field (the Widow Clicquot, Rainbeau Ridge cheesemakers, cookbook writer Lauren Braun Costello) and articulating our tastes (an arrestingly artful video of pig butchery, knuckle tattoos, Tecate, knives, a seat you can eat meat on) rather than bemoaning the state of the culinary landscape – virtually lady-free at the highest professional level.

One of our favorite celebrated ladychefs, Anne-Sophie Pic
art via Gastronomica

Charlotte Druckman, a New York based food writer for the New York Times' T Style, contributed a very thoughtful article to the Winter 2010 Gastronomica (no relation, though we’re long-time readers, and we’ve always loved this cover), which we urge you to read the article in full here, entitled “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Druckman reviews several important indicators of success and prominence in the culinary field:

  • Anne-Sophie Pic was the first female French chef to receive 3 Michelin stars in over 50 years, to extraordinary fanfare and fuss. Pic is amazing. We have written about her here, and we share her love of neon. In our minds, she and Arzac are the two women we can really look to for roll models amongst fine dining chefs. Unfortunately, we don’t have a fine dining chef on American soil who fits the bill.
  • At the 2009 “Women in Food”-themed James Beard Awards, only sixteen of the ninety-six nominees were women, and only two went on to take a prize. We thank Susan Ungaro (President of the JBF and an awesome woman herself) for supporting women in the culinary arts, but we’ve clearly still got a way to go.
  • In Phaidon’s stylish and influential Coco: 10 World Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs, ten of the grandest chefs on the scene each profiled the work of ten promising upstarts. Only one master Chef was a woman (Alice Waters), and collectively, the group selected fewer than ten total female nominees. A sign that no only is our current generation of master chefs heavily male dominated, but the demographic of the pool of promising talent isn’t dramatically divergent.

In many ways, Druckman’s thesis mirrors that of the article which inspired hers, Linda Nochlin’s 1971 “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” As a community, our language is pigeonholing women into a secondary feminized role of Suzie Homemaker; even when they put forth the same dish as a man, ergo, women: man as cook: chef. Women exist in the culinary field, but the way that we are talking about them is shaping their role in the community. It inevitably comes down to something as fundamental as the different vocabularies we use to describe men’s and women’s cooking; as Druckman explains, the same Bolognese dish might be called, “‘in your face’, ‘rich’, ‘intense’, ‘bold’, while a woman’s plateful of the same could be described as ‘home’, ‘comforting’ fare, ‘prepared with love.’ The former becomes an aggressive statement, a declaration of ego, while the latter is a testament to home cooking.”


But we have ego. We are bold, intense, aggressive, competitive and professionally hungry. Many of us are. We’re out there. We’re just still making our way up: fighting our way through culinary school, proving our way in the old-guard French brigade system (with our burns and bruises like everyone else), butchering whole animals, tinkering around with molecular gastronomy, not bitching or moaning (or at least not any more than our male counterparts). These things take time.


The thing is, there are many successful women who are restaurateurs, television personalities, and food writers; however, there are no prominent female fine dining capital-c “Chefs” in America. No female authorities to turn to at the highest levels of cuisine. Not one woman who even closely approaches Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter or Grant Achatz.


But these ladies are on their way. My proof: the interest by young American women to participate in the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious international culinary competition, hosted every two years in Lyon, France – the defining celebration of fine dining as spectacle, grid-iron, and ego.


At last year’s US competition to select the American delegation, while none of the eight chef leaders of the two-person teams were women; three of the eight commis (assistant) competitors were women. The commis must be 23 years or younger at the time of competition, so it is wildly encouraging that nearly half of the competitors eligible at that level were women. One commis, Adina Guest, a line cook at The French Laundry, won “Best Commis” and went on to represent the United States in Lyon as commis to Timothy Hollingsworth (now Chef de Cuisine of the French Laundry).

Thomas Keller coaching Timothy Hollingsworth and Adina Guest
at the French Laundry, where he built a Bocuse d'Or Culinary Training Center

Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, Timothy Hollingsworth and Adina Guest
in the heat of the moment at the 2008-2009 Bocuse d'Or USA Competition
Because the competition is performed live in front of a deafeningly loud audience of thousands of spectators blowing air horns and whistles, the Bocuse d'Or is most often compared to a rowdy World Cup soccer match. The intensity on the competition floor is unparalleled, and nearly every competitor leaves the floor with exhausted quotes to the enormous press core about how it was their most challenging lifetime experience – both professionally and personally.
At the competition, 24 countries are represented by two-person chef teams, who are allowed 5 ½ hours to prepare two elaborate platters, one a presentation of fish and the other meat, each accompanied by three intricate and complimentary garnishes. The platters are paraded in front of a panel of intimidating culinary luminaries – panel members have included Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Heston Blumenthal, Charlie Trotter, the Arzaks, Anne-Sophie Pic, in addition, of course, the honorable Chef Paul Bocuse at the helm.

The Judging Table

Participation in the Bocuse d’Or requires rigorous training for those who are already among the most elite chefs – chefs do numerous repetitious timed trials, not only fine tuning the flavor, presentation and cuisson of the dish, but building in efficiency (reducing the total number of trips to an oven or sink) in order to add time to their own clock. In the end, they must turn out picture-perfect platters for the judges to scrutinize. To learn more about the fascinating journey it takes to get to a platter like this, read Andrew Friedman's book, Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition (Free Press, December 2009), which follows Team USA on their journey from their selection through months of training to Lyon.

The beef platter of Norway's Chef Gier Skie, the winner of Bocuse d'Or 2009
Each delegation is supported by hundreds of fans, wielding flags, banging drums and hoisting signs into the air in honor of their team's culinary reputation.
Chefs Adina Guest and Tim Hollingsworth with Coach Roland Henin
waving to their fans after the most greuling six hours of their life
via Andrew Friedman's Toqueland

At this year’s Bocuse d’Or USA national selection competition, held in early February at the CIA at Hyde Park, one woman competed as chef – Jennifer Petrusky, Sous Chef at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago - and two more as commis contenders. It is exciting that the competiton was this year hosted at the CIA, in front of a live audience of inspired young chefs, many of whom will no doubt go on to compete themselves. Petrusky also competed in the former year’s competition, serving as Michael Rotondo’s commis, and she struck back as a chef competitor in her own right. If that doesn’t show a competitive edge for the sake of it, as well as an aspiration to make a mark on the world of fine dining, I don’t know what does. The thing is, ladies, many of us are fully devoted to the idea of greatness. But greatness takes a lot of work. That is why it is great. So, to answer the question: “Where are the great women chefs”? They’re working their way up, just like everybody else.

Share This!