10 July 2019
In the culinary world, women have culturally and socially been associated with the domestic sphere. Many of them are responsible for the family cooking. Today still, no less than 72 percent of them prepare the family meals on a daily basis. Paradoxically, since its early days, professional cooking has stood as a masculine work inspired by the feminine figure. Michel Bras, Alain Passard, or Olivier Roellinger haven ever tried to hide it: they count their mothers and grandmothers as sources of inspiration in the construction of their culinary identity.
In 2019, Jean Imbert even decided to open Mamie, a new restaurant paying tribute to his grandmother’s cooking. And yet, when women, as mothers or grandmothers, have inspired the best chefs in the world, we still count only 3 women for 14 men in professional kitchens. On the service side, if the numbers are higher, there are still fewer women: 8 women for 12 men. Considering this, what evolutions can we observe in the representation of women in the restaurant industry? Who are the influential figures and new hopes of the sector?
At the origins of professional cooking: a masculine institution
For a long time, women have been excluded from professional cooking. The cooking trade in France was built largely on masculine conventions, the vocabulary surrounding it (“brigade,” “chef), the organization within professional kitchens, and the common uniform bearing witness to these origins.
Historically, the origin of grand cooking appeared with the figure of Guillaume Tirel, or Taillevent, who headed the kitchen in the court of King Charles VI. We notably credit him with the Viandier, the most famous French cookbook of the Middle Ages. At that time, noble cooking was men’s business, women being relegated to head the kitchens of the small bourgeoisie.
The rise of fine dining and cooking (or “gastronomy”) during the 19th century didn’t exactly fix things: professional cooking organizations were exclusively made up of men, and made the choice of dismissing women from the culinary art, judged more noble than domestic cooking. Women were also excluded from apprenticeship positions in important kitchens in 1893 by the Congress of the Labor Trade Association of Paris.
Years passed and the end of the First World War saw the development of tourism and the proliferation of restaurants and inns in which to enjoy professional cooking. This sudden development encouraged women to cut loose and open their own establishment in the manner of the famous bourgeois house of the “Lyon mothers”, for which the Mothers Brazier and Bourgeois would be awarded stars at the Guide Michelin in 1933, a real achievement in the recognition of female gastronomy.
However, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that all-female professional associations saw the light of day, and that CAP (a vocational training program) in cooking was open to women. In 1975, Annie Desvignes, the restaurant owner of the Tour du Roy in Vervins, founded the organization of female restaurant owners and cooks. Today, many such organizations exist. One of the most emblematic ones is probably the one founded in 2001 by the famous chef Hélène Darroze and Anne Sophie Pic, the New Cooking Mothers, whose goal is to help women overcome the obstacles of the profession. Overseas, things are moving forward as well, as can attest the parabere forum, an organization gathering female chefs from all around the world. During annual meetings, the group strives to reinforce the influence of women in the culinary sector.
But even with this progress, obstacles to the feminization of the profession remain. Working conditions are still judged too difficult for women, and gender discrimination during the hiring process persists.
Working conditions that are unfavorable to women
The physical demand of the cooking profession has long been a key argument to exclude women from this career. Today, according to Marie Sauce-Bourreau, president of the French Toques, ”the material is adapted, and all the tasks are within women’s reach.” Indeed, hygiene norms and technical progress have improved the comfort level of chefs in the kitchen. Stagnation, long standing position, change in temperature… physical constraints persist in the restaurant industry, but they are the same for both sexes.
The flexibility of working hours can also be another disadvantage for women. As chefs, working days are long, and off-days and weekends rarely are days of rest. Infringements upon one’s personal time are often inevitable, which might impact the balance, or simply the creation of a family. Seeing as women are still majorly affiliated with domestic tasks and the raising of children, this constraint tends to affect women more importantly. 60 percent of employers identify the rhythm and the hours of work as the principal constraint to the progression of women in this industry.
A significant improvement in the visibility of female chefs
In spite of these pitfalls, women are moving forward and making their own way in the industry. Out of 75 new Michelin stars in 2019, 11 were won by female chefs. This amounts to 16 percent of laureates, which isn’t a lot but remains a non negligible improvement: they represented only 5 percent of winners in 2017. Women are taking their space little by little in the culinary sphere: in France, they are about 600 to be cooking for restaurant guests every day.
Many initiatives have contributed to this increase in visibility. We must honor the work of Végane Frédiana, filmmaker, writer and gastronome. Her feature, “Looking for female chefs,” her illustrated book “She’s cooking,” and her latest publication, “Cheffes” (written in collaboration with the food writer Estérelle Payani) have contributed to highlighting the work of every woman in French cuisine. The book introduces women at the forefront of today’s cuisine and who will be spearheading the future of the restaurant industry by presenting the work of every woman running a restaurant kitchen. Readers learn about the journey of big starred chefs, but also the stories of lesser-known talents like Eugénie Tine, with whom we’re lucky to work with, who single-handedly runs the fine dining restaurant Sequana, on the Île de la Cité in Paris.
These remarkable efforts have also highlighted the presence of women in the world of gastronomy, since as we’ve seen, there are women, but they’re rarely showcased by institutions, as evidenced by the only 11 women who received a Michelin star in 2019.
Today, the feminisation of the sector is incontrovertible. Initiatives such as exclusively female awards like the Cuillère d’Or (“golden spoon”) are contributing to increasing their visibility in the media. But who better than women themselves to showcase women’s cooking on a daily basis? Here’s our portrait of the most influential women of the culinary world and the up-and-coming female chefs to look out for.
Influential female chefs
Three-time Michelin-starred since 2007 and voted the world’s best female chef in 2011 by the Veuve Clicquot Award, Anne-Sophie Pic is the most renowned French female in the world. From a family of three-star chefs after her grandfather and her father (who received their stars in 1934 and 1973 respectively), she got into gastronomy in 1992 with her brother. Today, she’s at the head of 4 restaurants located in Valence, Paris, Lausanne, and London, and will soon open her fifth in Singapore. With a total of 7 stars for her restaurants, she is the most decorated female chef in the world.
Her signature dishes
Her cuisine brings together her family heritage with her taste for new savors and textures. As a tribute to her father, she serves the “Jacques Pic” sea bass with caviar he created in 1971, and also likes to remake her grandmother’s praline floating island. Every one of her dish has a story, like her famous belingots (French hard candy) inspired by the sweets from her childhood. She likes to offer this dish in a range of flavors according to local products.
Maison Pic (***) in Valence, Dame de Pic (*) in Paris, Dame de Pic (*) in London, André in Valence, Dame de Pic in Singapore in August 2019.
She also works in the kitchen of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne.
Voted the world’s best female chef in 2015, Hélène Darroze comes from a family of restaurant owners from the South West of France who made their name with the family inn Le Relais in Villeneuve-de-Marsan, today known as Chez Darroze. She won a Michelin star for her first fine dining restaurant, Hélène Darroze (*), located in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, replaced in May 2019 by a new concept, Le Marsan. Her restaurant in the Connaught Hotel in London (**) has received two. Since 2015, she’s become much more visible in the media since becoming a judge on the cooking show Top Chef where she offers guidance and tips to the contestants.
Her signature dishes
Immersed in South-Western cuisine since she was little, Hélène Darroze has conceived from a young age recipes strongly inspired by her native region. One of her flagship dishes is the escaoutoun, a dish from the Landes inspired by her grandmother, a sort of polenta-like stew of flour and chicken broth that used to replace bread during famines.
She also has a taste for fine products and her favorite ingredients are caviar and truffles, as evidenced by one of her signature dishes, the oyster tartare in French caviar jelly with a bean cream soup.
The Connaught (**) in London, the Marsan (formerly Hélène Darroze) (*) in Paris, and Joia in Paris.
Guislaine Arabian received the “Golden Women Trophy” in 1994 and two Michelin stars in 1995 for Pavillon Ledoyen, her restaurant in Paris. She became widely known by the public in 2010 when she became the first female judge on Top Chef.
Her signature dishes
Today, she’s at the head of a restaurant in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, “Les Petites Sorcières”, a bistronomic restaurant (a more casula, less formal fine dining establishment) whose menu goes back to Belgian and Flemish specialties and which cultivates a sort of neo-pub spirit. Her cuisine varies from season to season, but some of her iconic dishes include the fried Erquy scallops with caramelized endives or her chicory parfait and white beer zabaione.
Guislaine Arabian Bistrot in Paris, Les Petites Sorcières in Paris.
Other important female figures such as Stéphane Lequellec have also greatly influenced the industry. In 2019, the feminization of French cuisine is more than admitted, and its important isn’t questionable. Rising stars have emerged and keep forging ahead. Here are a few of them.
Voted the best cook in 2010 by the Guide Fooding and the year’s creator in 2019 by Omnivore, Adeline Grattard is a French chef with a bright future ahead of her. She became quite popular when she was featured in the Netflix show “Chef’s Table”. At the head of two French-Hong Kong restaurants in Paris, Yam’Tcha and Boutique Yam’Tcha, which she opened with her husband Chi Wah Chan, an expert in Chinese teas, she recently opened a third one, Café Lai’Tcha.
Her signature dishes
Bringing together French and Asian cuisines, her dishes include the tuna tartare with black rice, or the Quasi—sweetbread with a fuyu emulsion.
Yam’Tcha, Boutique Yam’Tcha, and Café Lai’Tcha in Paris.
Voted the world’s best pastry chef in 2019 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List? Jessica Préalpato is the pastry chef at the Plaza Athénée’s restaurant in Paris. She’s also received three Michelin stars. Her work in pastry cooking falls in with the singular concept of “desserality”, the union of naturality with desserts, a concept which she’s dedicated a book to. She creates fruity recipes from natural products with the goal of enhancing the taste of the chosen products, using neither cream nor foam in her pastries, and using only very little sugar to enhance her creations.
Her signature dishes
She likes to bring together fruits and new flavors, like with her strawberry and pine or beer and rhubarb desserts, her fresh, dried and roasted vinegar cherries with rice puffs, or her peaches and apricots cooked on the barbecue with a sage sorbet.
She is the pastry chef at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Le Plaza Athénée (***) in Paris.
In 2015, at the age of 21, she received a Michelin star, becoming the youngest starred chef in France. Revealed by her work at the restaurant “Les Fables de la Fontaine” in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, she opened her first restaurant, Baieta, with her close associates Sébastien Jean-Joseph and Grégory Anelka in the 5th arrondissement, where she pays tribute to the dishes from her childhood, and to Mediterranean flavors and products. She recently opened her second restaurant, Bô, which means “kiss” in Creole, a bar joint offering Caribbean dishes to eat on the go, like the West Indian sausage, the coconut milk fish tartare, or the chiktay (chicken and herring emince).
Her signature dishes
The “Bouillabaieta,” a singular take on the traditional bouillabaisse.
Baieta (*) and Bô in Paris.
Other women will continue to break the glass ceiling of the restaurant world, and will keep representing France in the culinary arts. These last few years have seen great strides being made, which is only the beginning of female gastronomy being represented to the fullest. If the road is still long for women to have the same place as men within this difficult industry, there are strong initiatives which foresee a positive evolution in the years to come.