Those of us who cover the world of food have been arguing for a week now about the “Gods of Food” issue of Time, which featured three male chefs on the international version of its cover and nary a female chef in its list of “influencers.” Commentators, rightly, were miffed at the blatant oversight, and their incredulity turned to anger when Time editor Howard Chua-Eoan gave a boneheaded interview to Eater attempting to justify his boys’ club of a list. “There was no attempt to exclude women, we just went with the basic realities of what was going on and who was being talked about,” Chua-Eoan said, apparently oblivious to the fact that he is one of the people doing the talking. (It is truly worth reading in full, for the sake of both gaping at Chua-Eoan’s tone-deafness and cheering on interviewer Hillary Dixler’s relentless mentions of women who should have been on the list.)
In response, Grub Street offered us “10 World-Class Chefs Who—Believe It or Not—Are Women,” one of a few listicles about “goddesses” that emerged from the hullabaloo, and another Eater writer went deep on the question of gender bias in food media. And, naturally, the New York Times devoted a “Room for Debate” to the question: “Why Do Female Chefs Get Overlooked?”
The New York Times “Room for Debate” is a frequently trivial institution, where one sometimes find PR flacks spouting talking points without engaging any opposing perspectives. (You’d think a “debate” would necessarily involve back and forth. But nope!) It’s become a parody of itself: Last month, for instance, “Room for Debate” fearlessly tackled such urgent quandaries as “Should You Bribe Your Kids?” and “Should men over 40 avoid trendy looks?”
“Why Do Female Chefs Get Overlooked?” could have been another collection of meaningless platitudes—especially since, as is too often the case, the Times offered a microphone to someone who had nothing useful to say: Alan Richman, the GQ restaurant critic who’s not exactly known for his sensitive, thoughtful rhetoric about gender. “I’m no authority on women’s issues, as any woman I know will tell you,” Richman begins his “Room for Debate” entry. Sadly, that sentence does not end with “so I’m going to stand down and listen to people who know what they’re talking about.” Instead, Richman calls Time’s exclusion of women “Outrageous but accurate and, for that matter, obvious.” (How something can be outrageous and obvious at the same time, he doesn’t explain.)
But “Room for Debate” made up for Richman’s ignorant bloviating by giving a slot in the debate to Gabrielle Hamilton, the Prune chef and author of Blood, Bones, and Butter, who cuts to the utter heart of the matter—both with regard to the current debate and with the general nature of this kind of debate:
There are a lot of important opportunities to raise up one’s voice, to throw bricks, but this one just seems suspiciously too simplistic and low-hanging—even for me who is always so quick to ire. I just don’t like the way it perfectly sets me up like a dog on a leash: Master kicks the dog and I’m supposed to bark?
I think the kicking of the dog speaks for itself.
Hamilton goes on to implore the male chefs who do get the spotlight to take an active role in fixing the restaurant world’s gender problem. “How ashamed is David Chang to have allowed his beautiful talented face to appear on the cover to represent the club that starves, or at least underfeeds, his sisters?” she asks. “I wonder if there are male chefs who themselves feel debased and embarrassed by an industry that doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently the women they work with, appear at events with, exchange business savvy and woe with, drink drinks and talk cooking with late at night after work?”
Hamilton succinctly summarizes what so many thousands of words in blogged responses to the Time cover have tried to say: Sexism in the food world is not a problem that female chefs can fix by themselves. It’s only when male chefs become ashamed to appear in an all-male magazine feature, and when they insist on championing their female colleagues as loudly as their male ones, that the food world will make inroads toward gender parity.
In that interview with Eater, Chua-Eoan said, “I think the media covers the industry. I don't think the media has to advocate for anything.” But he’s wrong—not only is purely objective journalism a myth, but, as Chua-Eoan should know, journalists and their subjects are symbiotic. Journalists offer a platform for those they choose to cover, and they can boost the careers of those who grace their pages. If the male chefs currently getting all the attention decide to change that, even Chua-Eoan would have to listen.