The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is an annual list that many consider the industry standard. Assembled by the British trade publication Restaurant, the 2015 list only included two female chefs: Elena Arzak Espina at Arzak (No. 17) in San Sebastián, Spain and Helena Rizzo at Maní (No. 41) in São Paulo, Brazil. Two out of 50 sounds bad enough on its own, but both women must share the honor with male counterparts at their respective restaurants. The 2015 Female Chef of the Year—Hélène Darroze, a.k.a. the inspiration for the character Colette in the 2007 animated film Ratatouille—did not even make the 50 Best cut with her eponymous restaurants in Paris and London. Traditionally speaking, women tend to rule the kitchen in many homes, yet they certainly seem under represented in the restaurant rankings. Does the gender disparity reflect social hurdles, business opportunities, discrimination or something else?
We asked Tom Colicchio of Top Chef, and he articulated the following response:
When I was at Gramercy Tavern, there was a period of time when I had chefs like Jonathan Benno, Marco Canora, Damon Wise and a few others who all went on to do pretty great stuff, and they were all in minor positions to women who worked for me. These women were just dynamite, but I think there is only one left working, Sarah Schafer, who is working in San Francisco right now. Even at Craft, I had a woman who worked her way up to sous chef recently, and she was slated to be the next chef de cuisine at a new restaurant, and she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. There is something going on, and it has nothing to do with the politics of the restaurant or kitchen or someone’s idea of putting a list together. This question would be very easy to answer by saying “no comment” because it is fraught with problems anytime you try to answer it. It is filled with landmines. You are damned if you, damned if you don’t.
I think this is more of a social issue with how we deal with women, especially women who have children. This is true for [all professions], not just for food. Especially for single women, we need more support for them, more childcare that is built in [to the system]. It really goes back to affordable childcare and recognizing that women have different needs when it comes to working and keeping them in the workplace, and we need to address those needs. Do we want to exclude people because they decide it is important for them to stay home and raise a family, or do we want to make it possible for them to contribute as much as they can when they can? I think the government should play a role in making sure that happens.
What I would rather comment on are lists. I think they are the most ridiculous things going right now. It’s always someone’s list for best burger, best pizza… enough with the lists already! It is just a bunch of nonsense. The women whom I know—you talk to Barbara Lynch about that—and she is happy to be known as a chef, not as a woman chef or the [second] woman to win Outstanding Restaurateur in James Beard [Awards]. What is important is that she is doing it and she is recognized as a chef at a restaurant who is contributing regardless of gender.