At the soon-to-be-reopened Raffles Hotel in Singapore, French chef Anne-Sophie Pic of the historic Michelin three-starred Mason Pic in Valence, France, has opened her first Asian restaurant: La Dame de Pic, one of three around the world. It was here, at the pre-opening of La Dame de Pic in Singapore that Pic hosted a small group, including prominent women in the food industry to taste her distinctive French cuisine with Singaporean inflections. The soothing surrounds of plush velvet in musky pinks and truffle also served as a decompression session after the earlier closed-door morning meeting with sommeliers, chefs such as award-winners Cheryl Koh (Les Amis, Tarte, Singapore), Vicky Lau (Tate, Hong Kong), Leonor Espinosa (Restaurant Leo, Bogotá), Daniela Soto-Innes (Cosme, New York), Ana Roš (Hiša Franko, Slovenia) and other women in hospitality, to discuss a range of issues.
Dissecting the role of the Best Female Chef award, the World’s 50 Best 50/50 voter split rule, women in hospitality empowerment and leadership were just few of the subjects.
PLATFORMS AND VOICES
Cheryl Koh, head pastry chef a Michelin two-starred Les Amis in Singapore, owner of Tarte bakery and winner of the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef awards in 2016 is adamant that accolades such as the controversial Best Female Chef award, gives women in the industry a much-needed platform. “A large part of this industry is male-dominated, and by having this to have conversations we can push women’s voices and profiles forward. And it counts.”
For Vicky Lau, head chef at Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room and Bar in Hong Kong, who won the Asia’s Best Female Chef award in 2015, the award forced her to examine equality. “When I won the prize, I had to ask myself those questions that the media were asking me about why I would accept this award. I don’t do what I do because I want to be a female chef. I do it because I have a passion for it. But I focused on the positive things that award brought. It created a platform”.
There is much contention whether the award – as well as the World’s 50 Best’s new 50/50 gender split amongst voters – fosters “an environment where expert female voices are heard and where female chefs are identified, valued and invested in on an equal basis to their male counterparts” as The World’s 50 Best group director Hélène Pietrini stated through a representative. “Once we reach a point of genuine gender parity in the restaurant sector, this series can surely be retired. But we are, unfortunately, not at that point as an industry or as a society, so role models are needed more than ever.”
A MATTER OF LEADERSHIP
The point is, Koh explains, is whether these awards exist or not, inequality still prevails. “This isn’t just true of the kitchen, but of society as a whole. In my own personal experience, and in the kitchen I run, which has been tough, the people who succeed do so because they are good, irrespective of gender. But we are talking about being leaders too; it’s all about recognition and representation.”
Koh continued: “There are less women as leaders in kitchens, so I think a lot of our conversation today is (about) encouraging girls to be ambitious, and to be leaders,” she says of the meeting. “I always want to empower them and say even if eventually you have a family and life goes in a different trajectory, give yourself a chance. Be ambitious enough to say: ‘I want to move up.’ Don’t start in a way that doesn’t have drive or ambition to get into a leadership position.”
Ana Roš, the 2017 winner of the award, advocates for age-equality in the kitchen and perhaps her views can be best summarised from the #ChefsTalks held this year, just prior to the awards: “Show me a kitchen capable of having someone who is 45, who can manage to work with people who are 20 years-old or less? We have a woman in the kitchen who is 55, and I look at her and wonder how I can make the kitchen environment comfortable for her, because I would like her to be there for long. People can say this is my ‘lifetime job’, I want to retire with this job…in Europe it is almost impossible, and I stand behind my word.”
BROADENING THE CONVERSATION
Of the meeting, Lau said: “It’s nice to connect with other women in our industry from other parts of the world and makes us aware of how to tackle problems, what we should start thinking about, what we should be aware of. There’s always a boys club. I think us ladies also need to help each other.”
For Anne-Sophie Pic, whose multiple establishments currently run on an almost 50/50 gender split, one of the topics that need more attention is that of the hospitality staff who keep restaurants and hotels running. “What about the hosts, the servers, the managers? So many women are in service and we need to include them in these conversations, not just the chefs.”
Pic also emphasises the need for transfer and sharing of technical skills. “For a long time I was embarrassed, ashamed that I did not know as much as the male chefs,” she said. It’s important that we start to share and speak about technique; we are inventing it too but we are too shy sometimes.”
“And we need to talk more with men”, she added, suggesting that this could happen in a series of conferences, workshops and talks that happen year-round.