The James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards were announced Monday, and while some publications are applauding women for "making their mark on the male dominated" restaurant industry this year, one can't help but wonder if they're really gaining any ground.
First things first, though: A huge congratulations to all the winners and, in particular, the five female winners: Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune for best New York City chef award; Belinda Chang of Modern for outstanding wine service, Andrea Reusing of Lantern for best chef in the Southeast; Saipin Chutima of Lotus Siam for best chef in the Southwest; and Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park for outstanding pastry chef.
Five wins sound pretty great, right? Not when you consider the number of categories ...
"Five wins" take on a whole new meaning when you realize that, in total, at least 23 awards were given out last night. Put another way, women made up a little more than a fifth of the winners circle (which I suppose is "impressive" when you consider they only accounted for 18 of the 96 nominees). But are we really going to celebrate this as "making a mark"?
Of course, this isn't any worse from any other year. Three women won in both 2010 and 2009; in 2008, five women won; in 2007, four. In general, the low number of nominees and winners simply reflects the overall lack of female executive chefs in the best American restaurants, which is a topic that Dana Cowin of Food and Wine, Eat Me Daily, The Feminist Kitchen, and likely others have addressed in length.
The general consensus seems to be that women are actually well-represented in restaurants; they just choose to work in positions (read: not as executive chefs) that aren't rewarded by the Foundation. In other words, women can cook, they're just not being recognized for it. (Of course, the next obvious question would then be: Why are the categories so narrow and exclusive? But I digress ...)
Focusing on the lack of female James Beard winners is not meant to distract from the praise and honor due to the five winners mentioned above -- that would be a tremendous disservice to some very talented and deserving ladies. But to pretend like the 2011 James Beard Awards are a giant leap for women in the restaurant industry, at least in my opinion, would be just as bad.
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