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'Gods of Food' revisited: Alan Richman's response

Posted by Devra First  November 16, 2013 08:54 PM

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Perhaps you have been following the reaction to Time's "Gods of Food" package, which outraged many for its failure to cite a single woman chef. Perhaps you are entirely tired of the subject. Sorry. I'm here to revisit it.

I responded to Time's content here. Many others responded, too, including food writer Alan Richman. After reading his reaction -- find it here -- I tweeted the link, with the message: "Alan Richman's alternately wrongheaded and obvious take on 'Gods of Food' concurs there are no worthy woman chefs."

Some felt my tweet was unprofessional and a cheap shot, that it didn't state what I took issue with and explain why. I'm not a fan of cheap shots, so let this stand as a clarification.

The main reason I found Richman's piece wrongheaded was the one I stated in my tweet: It concurs there are no worthy woman chefs. "No women chefs among the magazineís Gods of Food? Outrageous but accurate and, for that matter, obvious. I canít understand why this earnest but banal list caused an uproar," Richman writes. I disagree, as stated in my earlier blog about the matter. A "culinary family tree," traced from four sets of chefs, included Rene Redzepi, Alain Passard, Ferran and Albert Adria, and Thomas Keller. I argued that Alice Waters has been as influential in our food culture as any of them. And Time's tree didn't include a single woman among nearly 60 chefs. No Elena Arzak, no Suzanne Goin, even though both easily fit into the lineage portrayed.

A few smaller points I'd also take issue with as wrongheaded:

"The relevant issue is why women do not move up in the kitchens of major restaurants, the breeding grounds for chefs aspiring to be Gods of Food. I suspect itís due to restaurant kitchens' militaristic command structure, and women tend not to thrive in such situations."

No? Women find success in the actual military, the ultimate example of a militaristic command structure. We are going on suspicion here rather than research, and I suspect many women welcome clear-cut command structures and tend not to thrive in a squishy-wishy egalitarian kumbaya world of affirmation and processing where nothing actually ever gets accomplished. Not that those are the only two options.

"Chefs have never been particularly worldly or astute. Their skill set involves the stove."

Chefs travel more than most people I know, and in the interest of learning; there's no real way to experience the flavors and techniques coming out of Spain, Japan, Denmark, wherever, aside from actually going there. Not astute? Talk about a job that meshes right brain/left brain skills: Assuming we are talking about high-level chefs, one has to manage a staff of diverse personalities and issues, crunch numbers and manage costs and juggle tiny details to break a profit, finesse guests and the media, oh, and envision creative flavor combinations and presentations and make it all feel like art. A skill set that involves the stove -- rather than a computer? a professor's lectern? what? -- has no reflection on one's intelligence or lack thereof. There are plenty of sharp, clever chefs; there are plenty of dumb people-who-work-not-at-a-stove.

As for obvious:

In an aside, Richman asks: "Why has modern food journalism become little else but lists?" This may be rhetorical; I suspect we all know some of the answer. It has to do with time and money, both resources short for all kinds of journalists these days, and it has to do with page views. Lists get a lot of them.

And: "Excessive manliness is widespread in restaurant kitchens. Given a choice of promoting a man or a woman, male chefs generally pick a man -- he will feel humiliated if passed over for a women." This doesn't seem news, in any field. Hey, I'll bet men in kitchens pull higher salaries than women, too.

Richman and I do come to similar conclusions, however.

He writes: "The old guard of chefs never thought about creating opportunities for women. Thatís changing. That system is too feudal for this world. Women will become gods, probably soon. The lid canít stay on the pot forever."

I don't believe the new guard is necessarily thinking explicitly about creating opportunities for women; I suspect it is happening more organically than that. But it is happening.

As I wrote in my original post on the subject:

"When a version of this chart is drawn up in 10 years (as it will be; the culinary family tree is a staple of publications food-themed and otherwise), it will look different. The number of women-run restaurants with Michelin stars is increasing. There are more opportunities for leadership and mentorship. Food television (the influence of which Time simply ignores), a medium that's been friendly to women since Julia Child, is launching many woman chefs at a high level of visibility. About this world one thing is certain: Change will come."

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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