France’s New Michelin Guide: More Fraternité Than Égalité
Posted February 23, 2018 7:50 p.m. EST
PARIS — Perhaps nothing represents the tradition of French cuisine more than the Guide Michelin, whose coveted stars can make or break restaurants around the world.
But this year’s guide collided with the #MeToo moment, when it awarded new stars to 57 French restaurants, only two of which have women chefs.
“I was really shocked and angry because it’s been years that we don’t understand why, in the 50 new stars, there are no or very few women,” said Vérane Frédiani, a filmmaker who made a documentary about the search for female chefs around the world.
Frédiani sent up a post on Twitter with the hashtag #MichelinToo, inspired by the #MeToo movement. Her aim was not so much to denounce sexual abuse in restaurant kitchens — though there is plenty of that — but to shame the sacred guide for what she considers its abiding contempt toward women.
The two women who won stars this year bring the total to 16 female chefs among the 621 Michelin-starred restaurants in France.
That is a paltry ratio — less than 3 percent — even compared with other countries.
Of the 195 Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, only 19 have women chefs, according to the guide’s publisher, Groupe Michelin. There are only 20 women chefs at the 166 starred restaurants in the United States, the publisher said. Italy has the most, with 44 out of 365, or about 12 percent.
Gender imbalance in the kitchen is as French as foie gras and as traditional as a postprandial coffee. France has long enshrined the practice in which women cook at home for the family while men acquire fame and wealth as chefs in famous restaurants.
“The first is a lonely work at home for a limited circle,” said Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, editor-in-chief of the gastronomic information site Atabula and a former writer for the Guide Michelin. “For the second there is an organization, a brigade to direct.”
Male domination of professional French cooking goes back to the Middle Ages.
“The court was itinerant and when kings were traveling with their staff, in general, it was rather men who followed,” said Patrick Rambourg, a historian and specialist on French gastronomy. “When you have this historical model for so long, it can move but, we need to give it more time.”
The Guide Michelin says none of this matters: it’s only about the food.
Gender is “not something we take into account,” Michael Ellis, the international director of the guides, told Agence France-Presse. “Our inspectors are there to check the quality of the cuisine.”
Guide Michelin declined to provide further comment.
But the guide is inextricably part of tradition, and reflects the prevailing norms. In its 118-year history, the guide has awarded its top honor, three stars, to only four women chefs, from Eugénie Brazier, the chef at La Mère Brazier restaurant in Lyon in 1933, to Anne-Sophie Pic, the most recent woman to win a star, in 2007.
Some who study France’s culinary tradition explain the absence of women from professional kitchens by pointing to physical demands, like the ability to wield a heavy cooking pot or wrestle an animal carcass. Having children is also cited as a reason, since combining a family life with a restaurant schedule is challenging.
“Today in cuisine, we hardly see a woman take a chief position because the rhythm is extremely tough,” Pinay-Rabaroust said. “They have to work twice as much to show they are equal to men.”
Frédiani hopes to change that. While making her 2017 documentary, “The Goddess of Food,” she discovered that there were many women chefs out there. She and her friends are now trying to come up with their own list of restaurants owned by female chefs in France.
After an appeal sent through social media, they received about 200 names. “The idea is to publish it openly,” she said. “So we can no longer say that there are no female chefs in France.”
France’s equivalent of the “Me Too” movement, “Balance Ton Porc” or, roughly, Out Your Pig, has opened a breach for French women not only to speak out against sexual misconduct, but also to demand more parity in the workplace. Frédiani sees the battle for gender equality in restaurant kitchens as part of that larger struggle.
“When we fix the issue in gastronomy,” she said, “it will help many women in every field.” It is a battle chefs like Coline Faulquier, who owns the restaurant La Pergola in Marseille, are prepared to join.
“We are not required to become men, but we have to mentally harden ourselves,” she said.
She does everything a male chef does except she has one more person to manage, her 4-year-old son.
His father helps her but, even so, she said, juggling motherhood with the demands of running a restaurant is a daily “race against time.” She closes her restaurant at night from Monday to Thursday, and crosses town every day to pick her son up at school before serving the lunch to patrons at noon.
But like every passionate chef, she is ambitious. “I will give myself the means,” she said, aiming for the Michelin star.
Fanny Rey, who won her first Michelin star last year, has tried to change the kitchen culture at the restaurant she owns with her partner in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence by hiring and training women. Her restaurant employs three women in the kitchen and three in the dining room.
And she has trained five women chefs at her restaurant.
“To me, it has always been important to be surrounded by women,” she said.
She says there are many talented women chefs who deserve exposure but may not get it because they are not head chefs.
One of them is Jessica Prealpato, the head pastry chef at the three-star Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. Ducasse’s restaurants have a total of 19 Michelin stars.
“When I arrived, obviously it was tough, because I put pressure on myself,” she said.
When she told Ducasse about her plans to have her first child, she found him understanding. He was willing to arrange her schedule to accommodate a family life “because he told me he needs me and my creativity,” she said.
The tradition may be changing gradually but there are signs of change.
Ferrandi, a prestigious institution that prepares mostly young people for careers in gastronomy and hospitality management, says that 56 percent of its students this year are women. Women make up 79 percent of those working toward a bachelor’s degree in pastry making.
It is those women Frédiani hopes to reach.
“By showing them that women chefs are there, that they do exist,” she said, “I think it will motivate them to dream big, to dare to make their dreams come true.”