There is much chatter about women in the restaurant industry or, rather, the lack of them. Since my early days as one of the few women chefs in New York (late 1970's/early 1980's), this has been a subject that rears its head every few years. Has the glass ceiling been shattered? Have women earned a competitive place alongside their male peers in upscale restaurants? Is it possible to differentiate food created by women from that of men? It depends who you ask, but swirling speculation and empirical evidence aside, Monday night's James Beard Awards showcased women in the brightest of lights. A terrific article by Sumathi Reddy in the Wall Street Journal, posted moments after the awards, summed up the "women wins": Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune (in New York's east village); Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas (best chef Southwest), Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (best chef Southeast), Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park in New York City (outstanding pastry chef), and in the wine category, Belinda Chang of Danny Meyer's Modern (outstanding wine service).
With a note of sarcasm in her acceptance speech, Ms. Hamilton said "Wow, I didn't know you could win a Beard Award for opening a can of sardines and serving it with Triscuits." Hmmmm. Would a guy say that? Prune has a one-star rating from the New York Times as opposed to the numerous two and three-star offerings from the other nominees, including the very awesome April Bloomfield -- whose simple brilliance is in evidence at the Breslin, the John Dory, and the Spotted Pig daily. But a perusal of all the restaurant and chef categories at the Awards shows some statistical shortcomings. Out of five choices in each category, there was only one woman, Barbara Lynch of Menton in Boston, who was a nominee for Best New Restaurant. One woman, Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles, for Outstanding Chef Award, one woman as Rising Star Chef -- Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, and, out of 50 nominees for regional best chefs, there were only six women* represented. And true to the industry's norm, there were three women out of five nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef Award.
Many more women (including me) were represented at the media and book awards and there were lots of women "guest chefs" cooking for the receptions. And there were wonderful women chefs on stage, including Traci des Jardins and Susan Feniger, and major kudos to Emily Luchetti who organized the entire outstanding event. As past president and a member (for three decades!) of the first professional organization of women in food, wine and hospitality, Les Dames d'Escoffier, I can faithfully say that we've come a long way yet still have a long way to go. But first we must continue to celebrate the industry's extraordinary women -- for our contributions are womanfold.
*Krista Kern Desjarlais of Bresca in Portland, Maine; Maricel Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken, New Jersey; April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig in New York City; were nominated, three of the six won in their categories.