Just about every conversation I had with female friends the day after "Top Chef's" Season 4 finale began with the exclamation "Stephanie won!" It wasn't that the guys I know were rooting for anyone different, but for us ladies, the show's first female winner represented a sort of validation -- at least, as much validation as any reality TV show can ever give.
Reality television has also created an unlikely advocate for women in restaurant kitchens: Gordon Ramsay. The notoriously temperamental celebrity chef has already crowned two female winners, Heather West and Christina Machamer, in four seasons of his show, "Hell's Kitchen." He champions women chefs in an article on Bloomberg.com. "We are seeing more and more women working in our kitchens and more importantly taking the highest positions,'' Ramsay told the piece's author, Richard Vines. "Role models such as Angela Hartnett and Clare Smyth are inspiring the next generation of young female chefs to believe that there are no barriers anymore, and that if they have the talent and discipline, they too can reach the top."
Vines' piece, made up mostly of brief interviews with prominent female chefs, suggests that the past few years have seen a substantial increase in women assuming positions of power in restaurant kitchens. Interviewees chalked up the change to a variety of factors, from less sexism to ladies' steely work ethic. Thomasina Miers, of London's Wahaca, argued that women's style of cooking has recently come into vogue. "Men and women tend to cook in different ways," she said. "Women are intuitive and men are analytical. Look at a lot of Michelin-star cooking in London and the food is all neat, structured and precise, and compare that to someone like Sally (Clarke) or River Cafe. It's a different type of food: It's more about flavor than form. It's a more organic feel, more natural." Miers' take feels uncomfortably essentialist, but she may have a point: I'm hard-pressed to name a female chef known for her mastery of molecular gastronomy. It's unclear, though, whether this is a reflection of women's culinary interests or an indication that some sectors of chefdom are still a boys club.
While sexism in the kitchen seems to be on the decline, women still face unique challenges. A number of interviewees cited the difficulty of balancing such a taxing career with motherhood. "A woman has to make a choice because she may want to have children and you have to work long hours at this sort of level. It can be very hard being away every evening,'' said Hélène Darroze, a well-known Parisian chef whose first British restaurant, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, opens today.
Some female chefs are understandably sick of having to talk about their gender. "You get so much attention being a female chef and then you come to the point of, 'come on, just write about us as chefs not women,'" said Helena Puolakka of London's Skylon. As the presence of women chefs in high-end restaurants becomes less and less remarkable, Puolakka is likely to get her wish. But for now, I hope she won't begrudge us a bit of celebration.