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Hélène Pietrini, Ana Roš, Vicky Lau and Garima Aurora.

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Zen Garden at Tate Dining.

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Pork ribs with fresh bread at Gaa (left); Dreznica goat kid consommé, brain and wild hops pasta by Hiša Franko (right).

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World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

World's 50 Best Restaurants - Women chefs speak out

The World's 50Best Female Chef Award – a step towards gender equality, or backwards?
Jul 5, 2019 5:50 AM

IT'S A STICKY issue for both the women receiving it, and the guide that insists on bestowing it. The World's Best Female Chef award has been a mainstay of The World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2011 when Anne-Sophie Pic was the first winner. But it has attracted controversy since, firstly because of the perceived sexism (why the need to single out women in an increasingly genderneutral industry); and secondly, because Best Female Chef award recipients rarely saw their restaurants appear in the actual list.

This year saw some improvement, with 28-year-old Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme New York taking the honours, while the restaurant itself climbed two notches to No. 23. It also saw Dominique Crenn's Atelier Crenn debut at No.35. This comes after she famously criticised the awards (she won the best female chef honour in 2016 but her restaurant was not in the list then), declaring that "a chef is a chef" and "since when do we have to do a category for women?" Even the late Anthony Bourdain called out the award, asking why the special designation "as if they are curiosities".

In turn, Clare Smyth was celebrated as The World's Best Female Chef in 2018, but her debut restaurant, Core, was missing from the list then, only managing to get into the 2019 longlist at No. 66. Anne-Sophie Pic's restaurant in Valence, France, meanwhile, trails behind at No. 98.

On top of this, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée's Jessica Prealpato was named 2019's World's Best Pastry Chef, not best "Female" pastry chef, perhaps because most pastry chefs are women.

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So is the Best Female Chef award a'consolation' prize for women who are perceived to be less capable than male chefs and therefore more patronising than positive?

CHICKEN AND EGG

At the start of her career, Cat Cora was rejected by eight three-star Michelin chefs simply because "they did not allow women" in their kitchens.

"A male-dominated industry has the sense that women can't do the hours," remarked Ruth Rogers, owner of the storied River Cafe on London, in aninterview for The Independent back in 2017. Starting a family was seen as a liability, simply because men didn't take maternity leave.

Speaking at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore while in town for The World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards last week, Vicky Lau - Asia's Best Female Chef in 2015 - agrees. "Cooking was seen (to the older generation) as a job for those who lacked skills or academics; not a career by choice. Chinese cooking equipment is heavier (than western ones), leading some to believe it was no place for women." Garima Aurora of Gaa, who took home the 2019 Best Female Chef in Asia award, concurs that "being a woman means one has to work all that much harder."

The advent of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, too, have revealed the nasty underbelly of a predominantly male workplace. (Think Mario Batali and Mike Isabella.)

In addition, a survey of Women in Food Industry by McKinsey & Company in 2017, reported a percentage drop for women in line roles; with only 19 per cent of women making up the C-suite.

WHAT DO WOMEN CHEFS WANT?

What women want isn't a politically correct award, but respect, not just within restaurant walls but an overall supportive environment including media, investors and diners. Quirks in the Best 50 voting system also need to be resolved, and Hélène Pietrini, director of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, thinks that rearranging the 1,040 voters into a gender-balanced one can help even the odds.

However, the 2019 list suggests that the balance hasn't been tipped in the ladies' favour.

Nonetheless, says Ms Pietrini, "We all have different perspectives on how gender equality should be tackled and celebrated, but we have the same goal - inclusivity. We should work together."

Ana Roš, chef-owner of Hiša Franko and The World's Best Female Chef 2017, feels it's time to move on from the negativity and focus on what's important. "The moment I accepted an award like this, I became responsible for the whole community of women who have dreams. I'm talking about a woman who wants to achieve 100 per cent dedication in the role of a chef, mother, wife and more. I've been given the spotlight as a role model."

She has this advice for those startingout, regardless of gender. "To survive, you need your voice to spread around the world. Having goals and being sour (in life) because of the troubles faced reaching your goal are what many go through - but I believe we should still dream."

Chef Lau concurs, "The award has a lot of positivity despite its controversy. Its main goal is to encourage more females to follow their passions and not be afraid of joining a male-dominated kitchen." She adds that it would further increase the social value of chefs in Asian mindsets.

"The organisation is trying to help increase the visibility of women," adds Chef Roš. "I do not see anything wrong with giving a platform to women, when she can speak candidly about her life and work."

As to what good the "Best Female Chef" award can do, Chef Lau says it creates "a responsibility to educate and motivate more women (even in other industries).The increasing profile of chefs over the recent years have spurred more female chefs to join."

Chef Aurora stands by the list, explaining that "the individual award and list is very different." As a chef, she believes she is not in a position to question the organisation in regards to the actual list, but is still grateful for the award. "I am never in favour of any sort of discrimination. But the award has given me (and my team at Gaa) the drive to continue the good work we are doing at Gaa, rather than worry about whether something isn't getting done."

She is also one of the jurors for the Asia leg, with Ashlee Malligan and Yi Cin Lim representing Restaurant Nouri and Restaurang Jag in Singapore.

As for the award organisers, they are aware of its pitfalls and Ms Pietreni pledges to "safeguard the values the list stands by."

It may not be the best, but at least it's a step forward.