March is Women’s History Month, with International Women’s Day falling on the 8th. For weeks in advance of that day I was bombarded with emails from PRs promoting the women on the teams of the businesses they promote, from general managers of hotels in New York City, to the CEO of a major snack company and the sommelier at a notable London restaurant. They were the kind of emails I search for year-round for my Insatiable series, where, for all 12 months of the year I interview women in food and drink, across all levels and roles. Each new unread piece of mail in my inbox outlined in vivid detail what I’ve been trying to prove with that very series: there are incredible women in all corners of this industry. They’re everywhere, they’re doing a phenomenal job, and they deserve to be recognised for it.
Last night, the Michelin Guide revealed its awards and new stars for 2023. None of the recipients of new stars were women; only two weren’t white men. The only women newly recognised on the evening were Chantelle Nicholson, who received a well deserved green star for her restaurant Apricity, recognising its tireless commitment to sustainability; Tara Ozols, who won sommelier of the year for her work at Sola; and Sarah Hayward, who won young chef of the year. Of the 32 people who went up on that stage to receive an accolade, just three of them were women – or just under 10%, if we’re going to really go into the details of it. Of the 75 Michelin-starred restaurants in London, just six, or 8%, are helmed by women – all of whom are white.
Of the five three-Michelin-starred restaurants in London, two of them have female executive chefs. Hélène Darroze and Clare Smyth are often used as buffers for the immense lack of diversity elsewhere on Michelin’s list. This is not to detract from their immense talent; they earned those stars wholly and entirely, but their presence in such a small, prestigious group makes it easier for those that drink the Michelin kool-aid to avoid criticising its failings elsewhere.
Surveys show that women make up far more than 8% of the workforce in the food industry. In fact, 56% of people who work hospitality are female. Despite this, only approximately 17% of chefs are women. I mean, are you surprised, when ceremonies like last night’s made it glaringly obvious that this is not a job for women?
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It is, frankly, exhausting. Visibility is key in any industry in encouraging diversity on all levels. If you don’t see yourself in any field, why would you ever think you could place yourself there? Never mind the barriers to entry that still exist, and basic sexism around the ability of women to succeed in a role that many still think is too ‘physical’ for them. “Operating within what I’d call the mainstream hospitality industry and being in these rooms, there was never anyone who looked like me – and they were mostly decision-makers,” Lorraine Copes told me when I interviewed her for an Insatiable profile. Harriet Mansell, meanwhile, when speaking about being billed to get a Michelin star last year for her restaurant Robin Wylde, said: “but then the announcement came out and we actually looked at all the new restaurants, and there were 18 new one-starred restaurants, and they were all run by men. And we just went, actually, do you know what? I think we need to do this for women.”
Without fail, every woman I’ve interviewed has a story about their gender, even if initially they don’t feel it’s ever affected them. Selin Kiazim was one. “I always used to say that when it came to being a woman in the industry, I don’t really have any particular stories but I know things go on,” she told me, before going on to say “There are other quite well known female chefs that I know as friends, and when I speak to them about it, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I totally know what you mean.’ We all have our own stories, and none of us want to talk about it, because you don’t want to be known for that. It is really basic, it should just be about your restaurant and your talent, not to do with looks or whether you’re male or female or anything else. People are slowly trying to address these things, but there’s still a very long way to go.”
Watching the Michelin awards last night, I was hopeful things would be different. I thought of all the talented, vibrant women I had interviewed over the last couple of years, and the calibre of cooking out there right now from chefs like Roberta Hall-McCarron, Harriet Mansell, Sally Abé, Adejoké Bakare and many more, all of whom are cooking at a level more than deserving of Michelin-star recognition – especially when you consider the abundance of average restaurants from their male counterparts who have somehow manage to receive that very accolade. But as white man after white man graced the stage, I realised that this year was going to be the same as all the others – whiter than a meringue and with more sausage than a cassoulet.
The Michelin awards are an undoubtedly exciting affair. They celebrate culinary excellence, and provide a platform to restaurants working exceptionally hard to cook incredible food. A Michelin star can change a chef's life – and mark the difference between a restaurant flourishing or failing. But until they finally open their eyes up to the state of the industry and reflect it as such, it will remain an almighty disappointment. Women are cooking incredible food. It’s time they were awarded for it.