There's nothing like a list to get people angry. That much was clear last week, when Time Magazine put together their Gods of Food issue and featured almost no women, inflaming food lovers the world over, as these inadequate breakdowns of "The Best" tend to do. So why do them at all?
In the U.S., the Time issue was controversial because of a cover that heavily implied New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was fat (Headline: "The Elephant in the Room."). Around the rest of the world, it featured three famous male chefs: David Chang of Momofuku, Alex Atala of D.O.M. and René Redzepi of Noma. As Eater extensively covered, inside the magazine wasn't much better: a tree of influencers in the food world included no women, a list of 13 Gods of Food had a few – though none of them were female chefs – and small sidebar about pastry chefs featured two women.
Eater's Hillary Dixler interviewed editor Howard Chua-Eoan about how the issue came together and his responses about the issue were frustrating. He dismissed women Dixler suggested who could have been included by saying "they don't have that..." (What? Je ne sais quoi?) while admitting that yes, there's a gender imbalance in the food world:
Why are there no female chefs on the chef family tree?
Well I think it reflects one very harsh reality of the current chefs' world, which unfortunately has been true for years: it's still a boys club. There are of course very good and terrific female chefs: Carme Ruscalleda, Elena Arzak, April [Bloomfield] of course, Anita Lo of course, and of course Alice [Waters]. But it's very strange, the network of women, as Anita herself has been saying for so many years now, isn't as strong as the network of men. And when you look at this chart it's very clear. It's all men because men still take care of themselves. The women really need someone — if not men, themselves actually — to sort of take care of each other. The thing about the women I named, they are all spectacularly good chefs. But they also had to force their way to where they are now, they are almost their own creations. It's unfortunate, the women who are there are very good, but very few of them actually benefitted from the boys club, as you can see from the chart.
"At this point, rather than have someone on the list who other people will say 'fills a quota,' we did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef just because she's a woman, Chua-Eoan added, essentially admitting that their ranking system was based off of old school ideas of success, and therefore ultimately flawed. "We wanted to go with reputation and influence."
The New York Times tried to explore the question of why female chefs get overlooked in their Room for Debate section, featuring short essays from male and female chefs in the industry. But none came up with anything other than what's commonly known, and what Chua-Eoan has already said here. Anita Lo of Annisa wrote, "'The Gods of Food' represents an old world point of view. Let's make it the last vestige. And let's use the conversation it started as an opportunity for change."
That's one argument for the continuation of these lists: that their total inadequacy sparks a conversation about what's missing and what should change in industries that have power imbalances (most industries). On one hand, editors know this, and sometimes purposefully shape lists so they'll be controversial and spark conversation i.e. sales and clicks. On the other hand, some editors like Chua-Eoan do believe that they have only the responsibility to represent the "truth" of an industry and not diversify these lists for diversity's sake. As Chua-Eoan explained:
What role does the media play, if any, in the gender gap among famous chefs?
I think the media covers the industry. I don't think the media has to advocate for anything. Of course, if chefs advocate for things and make news about it, as Anita [Lo] has for years, talking about the gender divide among chefs, then I think it's worthwhile to cover them. But bring the subject up? I think we need someone to tell us, someone there who has an opinion that we can then reflect.
You don't think that the media has a role?
No, I think it does. Especially if the chefs talk about it, then we can cover it. If the female chefs talk about it, we'll cover it. But this story, this package is about influence. It's not about the social and gender roles in the world of haute cuisine. If there had been someone who had made a huge stir this year about how terrible it is, then perhaps. But even then we'd have to consider it against everyone else we want to include.
Here is an argument that it is not the media's job to change things. Which is one that's been made for television as well, or the movies; when criticism about the lack of diversity on Girls first came out, some argued that the show didn't need more black characters because it was unrealistic that the women on that show would be hanging out with people who weren't white. Here, Chua-Eoan argues the same thing: that it would have been a misrepresentation for Time to have included females based off of the parameters of their issue and the realities of the food industry.
"Waiting to get on a list, working to get on a list — this is a time- and soul-suck with no good end," wrote Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune. Hamilton's opinion on how she lives her life fits right in with what we know about female behavior in many fields; that they keep their heads down, do good work and don't seek the praise that, in the culinary industry for example, male chefs, many of whom are considered highly egotistical, do. We know this already, though apparently, we have to be reminded.
A Best XX list works in that it does what it's supposed to: it inflames the readers who would pay attentions to these issues in the first place and sometimes brings attention to people who deserve it. It doesn't often spark the minds of the casual readers of Time; they're much more likely to – however smart they are – walk away thinking subconsciously that there are no real female influencers in the food world. If we are to take Time at their word that it would have been disingenuous to include more women, then perhaps we should also be honest about the fact that the conversation after the fact has been lacking. No solutions have been put forward. No woman suddenly got drastically more due.
The best argument for continuing these lists actually comes from Chua-Eoan himself, when he said of the issue, "It's not about the social and gender roles in the world of haute cuisine. If there had been someone who had made a huge stir this year about how terrible it is, then perhaps." Time inadvertently made that stir themselves, proving how responsible the media is for shaping the narratives we read about what and who is important, made more meaningful by the fact that they seem to think they're outside of it all. The lesson learned here isn't about the food industry, though we clearly need continual reminders about the injustices there. It's that even the information spreaders don't get what they're doing.
The 13 Gods of Food [Time]
Images via Time