Thursday 20 June 2019

"I can never fully understand why women are just dismissed by Michelin' - Why chefs are saying #MichelinToo

The new edition of the French guide has sparked controversy after featuring just two restaurants headed by women, writes Deirdre Reynolds

Kitchen culture: Anita Thoma, Head Chef at Farmhill Restaurant in Goatstown, Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Kitchen culture: Anita Thoma, Head Chef at Farmhill Restaurant in Goatstown, Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren

Deirdre Reynolds

From #MeToo to #MichelinToo, the knives are out for Le Guide Michelin after just two women were awarded stars in the new French edition of the book.

In a move seen as more 'fraternité' than 'égalité', just two out of the 57 restaurants honoured by the prestigious guide have female head chefs, bringing to only 16 the total number of Michelin-starred 'cuisinière' in France.

Inspired by the hashtag created to highlight sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood and beyond, now female chefs across the globe are taking to Twitter to call Time's Up on inequality in the world of haute gastronomy too.

"I was really shocked and angry because it's been years that we don't understand why, in the 50 new stars, there are no or very few women," said filmmaker Vérane Frédiani, who started the #MichelinToo movement after making a documentary about the search for female chefs around the world.

Back at Farmhill Café and Restaurant in the South Dublin suburb of Goatstown, Head Chef Anita Thoma says she wasn't shocked by the news - just disappointed.

"For sure, it's disappointing," says Thoma. "I wasn't surprised because that's been the form, and nothing has really changed there. In a way, you'd think that large organisations in this day and age would have things in place that would make sure these things don't happen.

Prize: Kai Head Chef Jess Murphy was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand last year
Prize: Kai Head Chef Jess Murphy was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand last year

"There are a huge amount of women working in restaurants, in hotels, as chefs at high levels all over the world and for me, I suppose the feeling is that the men are holding the power within these organisations, so the men are giving out the prizes."

She adds: "I mean, with the amount of women who work in restaurants as chefs, it's not possible that only that small [a] percentage of [them] are awarded awards. I think it's a really bad message that's being given out as well. We talk all the time about chef shortages, about women in the industry, and I think it's not a very smart way for people to behave to then not be seen as being supportive for women, who are sometimes making huge sacrifices to stay in the restaurant business."

But France's Le Guide Michelin, whose coveted stars can make or break a business, isn't the only one to validate far more men than women.

Of the 195 Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, only 19 have female chefs, according to the guide's publisher, Groupe Michelin, while there are only 20 women chefs at the 166 starred restaurants in the United States.

Here at home, Down native Danni Barry became the first and only Irish woman to earn a star while at the helm of Michael Deane's Eipic in Belfast in 2015, retaining the award for two more years before going out on her own with Clenaghans in Antrim last November.

Calling for greater recognition of Ireland's other 'women in white', Mayo chef Aine Maguire - who works three days a week at Delphi Lodge while studying for a Masters in Gastronomy and Food Studies at DIT Cathal Brugha Street - acknowledges: "It's obviously a male-dominated world.

"I've often worked in kitchens where I'm the only woman, but it's not the only business or sector to have that.

"It's a very difficult world to live in for a woman. You have to give up a lot, and women can sometimes tend to not - to use that awful phrase - 'lean in' because they have four children at home. Men don't have to make that decision - they can continue to have their career and have their four children at home, most of the time.

"I can never fully understand why women are just dismissed by Michelin," she adds. "Are they just not visiting the places where women are the head chefs?

"It goes deeper than just, 'the industry doesn't support women'. The gender divide and the imbalance in our culture is much deeper than that, but it's very obvious in the world of kitchens, especially when you have a group like Michelin who simply leave out a good 30pc [of the workforce]."

As #MichelinToo trends on Twitter however, the 118-year-old guide has stood over its stars.

International Director of the guides Michael Ellis told Agence France-Presse that gender is "not something we take into account".

"Our inspectors are there to check the quality of the cuisine."

In Galway, Kai Café and Restaurant Head Chef Jess Murphy says she was "chuffed" to be awarded the separate distinction of Michelin Bib Gourmand for 'good quality at good value' last year.

"I left New Zealand to come and work for Kevin Thornton who had two stars at the time, and Michelin was a very big drive for me all my life," she explains.

"To get a Bib was the best thing ever for me because that's all I wanted, for Kai to be recognised, and we got the first Bib for Galway City, so that was pretty cool.

"It was pretty cool that I didn't have to fall into a certain category - they just judged me for who I was and how I cooked."

Despite featuring in the latest Michelin Guide to Britain and Ireland, the chef concedes that women in the industry deserve better representation - but not just by the foodie bible. "Female chefs are 100pc not publicised as much as males, we know that. There's a clear problem in the industry.

"There should be more recognition for female chefs in general, but that's the media's fault as well because if the media keeps on portraying five guys in chef whites with their arms crossed with one female in a photo, how is that balanced?

"How is that fair for young Irish women coming up the ranks that are training to be chefs? It's all about role models."

As the row continues to simmer on social media, meanwhile, Anita Thoma urges male chefs everywhere to start rattling those pots and pans on behalf of their more overlooked female comrades.

"Really, in this day and age, I can't understand how institutions like that [Michelin] aren't embarrassed by their policy," she says. "Even governments try to put in [gender] quotas because that's what they have to do.

"My feeling is until the men in the industry start saying and doing something about the position of women in the industry, it's not going to change. There's no point in men turning around to the women on their team and being supportive in a quiet way."

Anita continues: "We need men in the industry to say they're not happy with it - let's see somebody give back one of their awards because they have several women on their brigade and they're not getting awards.

"Like with the #MeToo movement, what's powerful about that is men are standing up and saying, 'enough is enough'.

"Until men start to stand up for equality in society and in our industry, it's not going to change."

Irish Independent

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