Last Tuesday night, in Bilbao, northern Spain, the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards were announced: a pessimistic, sadly predictable exercise in culinary myopia. This is an event, an institution, and an index that is perennially lambasted for its obsession with a certain type of restaurant; for privileging European cooking on expensive, often exclusive tasting menus, and for lacking any ability to interrogate its own failures on issues of gender and racial diversity.
Among the most high-profile failures was the award’s inability, yet again, to meaningfully honour female chefs across the world. There was space this year for five restaurants run by female chefs (only two are run without a male business partner). Beyond that, though, there was criticism of the committee for those that it left off, as much as for those it sparingly placed.
Clare Smyth — one of the U.K.’s most high-profile chefs — is the owner of Core, a Notting Hill restaurant, which opened last August. At last week’s ceremony, Smyth was formally issued with the controversial “best female chef” award, which had been announced to a familiar chorus of controversy in April. Given the recognition for the chef, it had been expected that the restaurant, too, would be honoured — somewhere — in the index. It was not.
On the night, in her acceptance speech, Smyth, as the the only person addressing the issue of gender at the event, said: “For the last 10 years of my career I’ve been asked, ‘What is it like to be a female chef?’ to which I reply, ‘I’m not sure what you mean, because I’ve never been a male chef.’”
Eater subsequently spoke to Smyth — who said in 2013 that she had “always competed on the same level [as men]” — to better understand her feelings about the award(s) and the debate that continues to circle around the idea of naming a “best female chef” in the world.
Do you believe the best female chef award should exist at all?
I don’t have the answers and I don’t think that anyone has a quick fix but I do know that it is something that we need to keep shining a spotlight on and this award certainly does this whether or not people agree with it!
I’m keen to understand how you feel about being handed the “best female chef” award when there is no place on the entire list of 100 best restaurants for Core. I realise the awards themselves recognise restaurants, but it still seems a little odd. Were you surprised that Core did not make it into the top 50, let alone the top 100?
I am not surprised at all. It is clearly laid out that the voting process is over 18 months, and at the time of the voting, Core couldn’t have been open for more than 8 or 9 months. While my career started 20 years ago, the restaurant has only been open for 10 months. These are two very different things.
(Smyth did not want to comment further on the matter.)
Although it is possible on some level to dissociate chefs from restaurants — and that one establishment is often bigger than the person in charge — questions remain around the 50 Best’s rationale, and the institution’s credibility.
Forgetting for a moment the institutional biases of the awards, is there not also something fundamentally awry about the awards’ methodology? One is forced to ask whether Smyth would have been anywhere near as likely to have won the accolade were she still at the helm of a restaurant run by a man. It’s impossible to tell, of course. But we know this: She was solely responsible for maintaining three Michelin stars at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay for eight years, between 2007 — when she was first appointed to head chef — until 2015 when she left. Smyth was the first (and remains the only) female in the U.K. to have ever held the accolade. Only now has Smyth been given the title of “the world’s best female chef.”
It is therefore difficult not to draw the conclusion that because she had a restaurant to call her own Smyth’s profile in the past 24 months has changed. In other words, the new title is bestowed upon her because, not in spite, of Core.
And yet, like Smyth, group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, William Drew, insisted to Eater that there is a clear difference between the award for best female chef and the (100) best restaurants — and that Smyth’s previous work must have factored into the committee’s decision.
“The Best Female Chef award is for Clare Smyth as a chef, while the 50 Best listing is of restaurants — an important distinction. Core did not make The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list because it didn’t receive sufficient votes. The restaurant opened in August 2017 and the voting took place in January 2018, so that is in no way surprising,” he said.
“Clare was voted The World’s Best Female chef by the 1040-strong Academy of 50 Best voters. She presumably received votes based not only on Core, but on her cooking previously at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
“Please note that The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list recognises, rewards and ranks restaurants rather than chefs,” he added.
And while it might well be the case that Smyth’s restaurant was not given a place because it didn’t get enough votes, would it be unreasonable to implore the organisers to consider reworking the voting procedure? Would it not make more sense for there to exist a better and more sophisticated symbiosis between the individual awards and its much more press-worthy restaurant index? It’s not about tokenism, it’s about objectivity. It is, after all, not the first time that this has happened.
It is also interesting to note the following, taken from 50 Best’s own website:
There are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet. They do not have to sell a certain product. They do not need to have been open a certain number of years and they do not need to have won any other culinary accolades.
“They do not need to have been open a certain number of years.” So although a restaurant must have been visited within the previous 18 months, there is nothing that stipulates that it must have been available to visit for this amount of time.
If trying to understand the 50 Best seems futile, then one question, for years unanswered, uncovers its record, in fairly explicit terms: Why is there not an award for the best male chef?
The answer, even though the organisers cannot admit it, is that every winner of the best restaurant award — like the overwhelming majority of names in the top 50 each year — has been run by a male chef. Not just any male chef, but a male chef with a profile engineered through PR, networking and validation by this index — which itself, by every implicit measure, means they are regarded not just as in charge of the best restaurant in the world, but that they, personally, are understood as the best [no prefix] chef in the world. Each year, the voters apparently buy into that mythology. And each year, they give it more credence.
And one final thing — those lauded restaurants which comprise the top 50 are profiled on a newly updated 50 Best landing page. In each case, there is a photograph: Firstly, not of food, nor of the restaurant’s interior. In two cases, there is a portrait of two or more chefs. In 45 cases, there is just a photograph of one person: A chef. A male chef.
That spotlight will continue to shine.