The chef Clare Smyth is the first Briton to receive the World’s Best Female Chef award, which she accepted in Bilbao at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards on Tuesday night. Despite her own modest claims in the past that she is just a “traditional, boring chef”, Smyth’s talent is widely regarded as singular. Born in Northern Ireland, she remains the only UK woman with three Michelin stars – a talent that has now rightly been recognised on the world stage. So far, so good.
But the triumph is undeniably bittersweet. If this is a coup for Britain and British cooking, it’s less so for women. That such an award even exists confounds many, particularly when the recipients are of Smyth’s calibre. Her career to date stands up against the very best in the world, male or female – at just 28, she was Gordon Ramsay’s head chef at Royal Hospital Road before she went on to open her own place last year, Core by Clare Smyth, in London’s Notting Hill (not to mention having catered a certain high-profile wedding recently).
The World’s Best Female Chef sounds like a pat on the head from the (gourmet) sausage-fest that is the World’s 50 Best Awards. In 2018, is it still too wishful to hope for an award that prizes culinary achievement and where gender is incidental? It’s hard not to read this singling out of female achievement as a booby prize, quite literally. Announcer Mark Durden-Smith actually proclaimed: “It’s all about girl power tonight.”
Smyth’s acceptance speech acknowledged the difficulty of getting women into restaurant kitchens, her delight laced with a grim awareness of the restaurant industry’s inequalities. “I would love to see very soon that we don’t need gender-specific awards because women will have recognition and there will be a balance in the industry,” she said.
It is true that, at the Michelin-starred level, which the World’s 50 Best Restaurants marks, female head chefs are few and far between. This year’s list saw the number rise from three to five – Elena Arzak, Pia León, Daniela Soto-Innes, and Pim Techamuanvivit, and last year’s winner Ana Roš – two of whom are co-head chefs with a man. Core by Clare Smyth didn’t make the top 50.
Clearly, women have a harder time standing out in this arena, but this is less a question of ability, more one of representation and opportunity. There needs to be a better, more sustained effort to lure talented women chefs into the hotbed that is Michelin-starred cooking.
Also honoured on Tuesday night was the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, whose suicide earlier this month has prompted discussion of mental health issues in the restaurant industry. As long ago as 2013, Bourdain tweeted: “Why – at this point in history – do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities? #2013 #50BestWhat?” Wise words, the heeding of which would honour not only women but this great chef, who just happened to be a man.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010