The winners of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards were announced yesterday in Bilbao, Spain, with typical pomp. While attention was obviously focused on the countdown to the various restaurants in the top ten, some of the ceremony’s loudest applause occurred at a midpoint, when Irish chef Clare Smyth took the stage to accept the World’s Best Female Chef award. Smyth is famously the only woman to have run a three-Michelin-starred kitchen in the U.K., and at Core, her first solo project, she serves ornate, composed plates centered around ingredients like Scottish venison. Onstage, Smyth quickly stowed her trophy behind the podium, thanked voters, and gave a short speech. “I’m constantly being asked, ‘Why don’t we see more women being represented at the top level of the industry, and why is there a lack of diversity?’” Smyth said. “The thing is, I don’t have the answers, or not all of them.”
Smyth continued, sounding hopeful, but with the measured pace of someone who’s faced the same two or three interview questions repeatedly. “For the last ten years of my career I’ve been asked, ‘What is it like being a female chef?’” she said. “To which I reply, ‘I’m not sure what you mean because I’ve never been a male chef.’” The audience laughed wearily, and Smyth finished by urging her peers to try valuing the qualities of support, tolerance, and kindness in a chef as much as they value flawless spot prawns and heirloom carrots.
The very idea of awarding a Best Female Chef remains, at best, questionable. (Even Gordon Ramsay, Smyth’s mentor and former boss, once called her “the most prominent female chef of our generation.”) Critics continually point out that the mere existence of the award continues to promote the idea that “female chef” is some sort of novelty act, meant to be celebrated as an aside to the “real” chefs whose restaurants make the cut on the actual World’s 50 Best list. It’s unhelpful to be having this same conversation, or some closely related variant, every year around awards season. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Smyth’s restaurant didn’t land on the 2018 list, or even the runners-up list, which means that, according to the organization that runs these awards, the best female chef in the entire world runs, at best, the 101st best restaurant, overall.
The very idea of ranking elite restaurants is of course silly, as the same ten or so restaurants shuffle around at the top of the list each year when — let’s be honest — no restaurant operating at this level actually gets demonstrably better or worse over the course of a single year. The list is nothing but PR for the various sponsors, most notably the industrial food behemoth Nestlé, whose San Pellegrino brand of water is the list’s most prominently advertised product. But if you’re going to rank these restaurants each year, you owe it to the operators and the diners to do a better job of it. Practically since its inception in 2002, the list has been criticized for its lack of female representation; this looked like the year that the voters and sponsors might actually change that. Instead, they ignored restaurants run by the world’s most prominent female chefs, and in the process, somehow managed to make themselves look less relevant than ever before.
Yesterday’s ceremony included an expected amount of manufactured drama and some musical-chairs-worthy shuffling of the top five ranked spots, but nothing that happened at the awards was more meaningful than the omission of Dominique Crenn’s Atelier Crenn. The San Francisco chef was widely tipped to make a praiseworthy, deserved leap from No. 83 on last year’s roster to, well, anywhere between No. 10 and No. 50. Crenn’s absence is all the more conspicuous because the chef’s long been on the record about the complexities of getting recognition framed by the needless “female chef” honorific. “I hope in the next few years these awards are going to disappear […] But until then, we still have to have a conversation,” she told us, five whole years ago, in 2013.
Of the 100 restaurants on the full list, just 4 are run by women. At Nahm in Bangkok, Pim Techamuanvivit recently replaced founding chef David Thompson, but the restaurant kept a spot in the top five. There’s Helena Rizzo, of Maní in São Paulo; and Leonor Espinosa, who runs Leo in Bogotá with her daughter Laura Hernández-Espinosa, the restaurant’s sommelier. Hiša Franko in Slovenia, led by Ana Roš, made an auspicious, expansive-seeming debut this year.
It’s also worth noting that some women were among the co-chefs and chefs de cuisine at several other spots on the list: At Central in Lima, Pia León is at the pass, and at Cosme, which went from No. 40 to No. 25, Daniela Soto-Innes commands a kitchen where most of the cooks are women. And while Juan Mari Arzak, the jovial 75-year-old forefather of modernist cuisine, continues to make the rounds at Arzak, taking photos with customers in the kitchen, the menu is steered by his daughter Elena, a prodigy in her own right.
Women, of course, also work at all of the restaurants on the list, but by and large, men are the public faces, and largely the owners, who stand to gain the most financially from high placement on this list. The implicit message of this list has become only too clear: The gaze here is fixed, and it is male. (Even the ceremony itself this year began with a testosterone-heavy, flame-spewing introduction with angsty guitars and a deep-voiced European dude intoning lines about being the steel and the knife blade, a metaphor that is both working too hard to be cool, and one that’s more or less nonsensical.) This sort of hyperactive narrative — the tortured genius chef — reverberates through to the way the honored restaurants depict themselves. Consider the Clockwork Orange–meets–Juggalo aesthetic apparent on the website of David Muñoz’s restaurant DiverXo.
Given its outsize, big-budget influence, the 50 Best list could do its part to celebrate diversity in the industry. Instead, at a time when some of America’s most prominent male chefs and restaurateurs have been revealed as sexual predators, it’s infuriating to see a ceremony that continues to lean so heavily on outdated, all-too-familiar narratives. By perpetuating unhelpful ideals, and continuing to qualify the talent and work of women with a separate standard, this group, along with its voters, ensure that the only real winner here is the fizzy-water sales boost that San Pellegrino must get from its affiliation with the award.