Are now turning tables
They are all top chefs, leaders in their field - and they happen to be women. MEGAN MILLER speaks to these four global sensations who have blazed a trail in the traditionally male-dominated food industry
IN COLLECTING her Best Female Chef award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in Melbourne earlier this month, it was fitting that Slovenian chef Ana Ros dedicated the win to her two children. “Everything is possible,” she said triumphantly. “This is the best message of them all.”
A one-time ski champion, Ros was on her way to a career as a diplomat when chefdom found her. In 2000, her husband inherited his parents’ restaurant, Hisa Franko, in the remote village of Kobarid. So, with no formal training, Ros took over the kitchen. At the same time she was raising two young children. Without financial backers, the family was counting on her ability to juggle career and motherhood.
This year, Ros’s 50-seater debuted at No. 69 on the starry list, which actually spans 100 restaurants. You feel the accolades may have rolled in sooner had she not turned down trips and chef tours to be with her family. She still grapples with the “bad conscience” of being pulled between home life and 18-hour days in the kitchen.
“We [female chefs] finish our work and we don’t go have a beer,” she says. “We go home,check our children are asleep, maybe do some washing and cook a family meal.
“My hours are 24 in a day – not one more.This is why these awards are a good platform to speak about that, not to shout for emancipation because it is not possible.”
While debate still rages about the very existence of the Best Female Chef award (patronising, foolish, insulting and tokenistic are some of the barbs levelled at it since its inception seven years ago), Ros is using it to put her country on the map and highlight the need for women in elite-level roles.
“If you look at the percentage of men to women in the kitchen, of course, it is in big favour of men because of the nature of the work – it’s difficult, a lot of hours, a lot of time and women cannot afford that. We are wives, we are mothers, we have another life. Even physically it is difficult,” she explains.
Dominique Crenn, the French-born chef behind San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, has long been at the debate’s coalface. Crenn is unafraid to lend her voice to topics close to her heart – including what it means to be a leading woman in a male-dominant field.
When she won Best Female Chef last year she considered rejecting the title, but accepted it and declared: “I hope that award won’t exist in two years.”
“It’s 2017 and we still have to talk about this? It’s crazy,” she says. “The award is a platform for dialogue and conversation, which is always nice, but nothing’s happening very fast.
“People sometimes have a hard time seeing a woman in charge. It’s so weird. Guess what? We are in charge and we have been for a long time.”
Crenn is a longtime fan of Julia Gillard, describing the former PM’s now-famous 2012 misogyny speech to parliament as “wonderful”.
“I’ve experienced sexism, too, of course,” Crenn explains, “but I’m a strong-minded person, so if I smell someone who tries to be sexist to me, I shut them down very easy. It’s not being aggressive, but you kind of look at them and go, ‘OK, what is your argument? Then we can talk about it’.Then you realise here’s an uneducated person, and you walk away,” she says.
Conversely, Elena Arzak, the fourthgeneration chef at her family’s famed restaurant Arzak in Spain’s San Sebastian, said the Basque region’s matriarchal society is alive and well.
“At Arzak, 80 per cent of staff are women, and in the kitchen we have seven female chefs de partie in charge. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a chef so it is normal,” she says.
It was only when Arzak left San Sebastian to train in France, Italy, Switzerland and London earlier in her career that she observed the imbalance of the industry, something she’s confident is improving.
“On average, there were very few women but [the men] respected me very much. In my case I was lucky. It’s true that now you will still find less women but for me this a social question of time. I wish there were more women but this will come with each generation.”
Closer to home, Sydney chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong says helming a restaurant is full of personal sacrifice, regardless of gender. “It’s an enormous commitment to make a restaurant run smoothly and efficiently, day in, day out, year in, year out.”
While her culinary influences include male and female mentors – her mum, Neil Perry, Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander and Rene Redzepi – she believes the Best Female Chef award has its place. “I strongly believe it’s very positive that the conversation about achieving gender equality within a typically male-dominated profession is happening,” she says.
As the World’s 50 Best group editor William Drew said in January in defending the gong: “Glass ceilings may have been cracked, and a few broken, but none have been dismantled entirely.” We are celebrating fantastic female chefs. Go to delicious.com.au/girlsonfire to meet the pioneering chefs you need to know