The annual NRN Power List is the definitive list of people setting foodservice trends today and shaping them for tomorrow. See the full list >>
If 2017 marked the year when men were finally called out publicly for behaving badly — and suffered the consequences — then 2018 was the year women rewrote the story.
As the #MeToo movement exposed a toxic culture that was largely an open secret in plain view, it also prompted a rich and ongoing debate about the role of women in the foodservice industry.
Fundamentally, that debate has focused on why there aren’t more women in leadership. Would this toxic culture have been allowed to grow and thrive for so long if more women had been in charge?
Now, perhaps, in the post-#MeToo world, the industry will be able to find out.
What could have been a year focused on women as victims became instead a new era of rethinking how to build more egalitarian restaurant companies. Across the industry, women are stepping up and talking about how to do things differently.
And they are increasingly being recognized, not just for being women in a male-dominated world, but independent of gender.
Consider this timeline: In 2016, San Francisco restaurateur Dominique Crenn was named the World’s Best Female Chef. At the time, she said it felt like a consolation prize that furthered inequality in the kitchen. “It’s stupid,” she told The Washington Post. “A chef is a chef.”
Fast forward to late 2018, when Crenn became the first female head chef of a U.S. restaurant that has earned three Michelin stars. It took 13 years of Michelin reviews in America for that glass ceiling to break, but the inclusion of Crenn’s restaurant — Atelier Crenn — in the elite three-Michelin-star ranking was a watershed moment.
In response, Crenn told The New York Times, “It’s a platform I now have; I must inspire others and make a difference.”
Still, there is much room for improvement.
Of the 120 or so three-starred Michelin restaurants around the world, only about five are run by women, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
But that may soon change, in part thanks to the #MeToo movement, which has sparked a shift in the structures that support such ratings and award programs.
Last year, the James Beard Foundation, for example, which has been criticized in the past for favoring white male chefs, changed its awards programs with the goal of becoming more inclusive, building a more diverse community of judges to consider a broader range of restaurants, and do it more transparently.
The changes will be in place for the 2019 awards, but the impact of #MeToo was clear even in 2018, when more than half of the foundation’s awards went home with women and people of color.
Some restaurant critics have pledged to look for more balance in the concepts they scrutinize. Many in the industry also rethought their hiring.
Chef and restaurateur Traci Des Jardins, for example, said she previously didn’t focus on gender when selecting staff and ended up with many male leaders in her kitchen. Now she has greater commitment to seek out, hire and promote women, she told Christa Quarles, former CEO of OpenTable, who wrote a column for Fast Company on ending rampant sexism in the industry last year.
Quarles, it should be noted, stepped down from OpenTable in December and was replaced by a man: Steve Hafner, CEO of Kayak, another unit within parent company Booking Holdings.
Others are creating tools to make inclusive hiring easier. Cookbook author Julia Turshen launched Equity at the Table in April 2018 after becoming increasingly frustrated with both the racial and gender homogeneity and discrimination within the food industry.
Equity at the Table is a free digital database of nearly 1,000 food professionals who identify as women/gender non-conforming, particularly focusing on people of color and the LGBTQ community. It is designed to serve as a resource for journalists, lawyers, editors, restaurant owners and conference organizers looking to diversify the employees, freelancers and speakers they hire.
More structural changes are expected.
A new law adopted in California last year requires public companies based in the state to have at least one female board member by the end of 2019. Companies with five or more members on the board must have two female directors by the close of 2021, and three female directors if the board includes six or more members.
But if #MeToo opened a door, now the industry must walk through it.
Key in moving forward is the recognition that equality in the industry is not about reparations. It is about embracing the basic notion that fostering diversity at all levels will result in a more successful operation.
Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of the New York restaurant Dirt Candy, wrote in an opinion piece for Jamesbeard.org that the change needed must be both steady and sustainable.
“Not just for women, but for all chefs,” Cohen wrote. “Because everyone benefits from a larger, more inclusive and more egalitarian restaurant industry.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout