The world food bubble descended on Paris on Monday 16 September for the #50BestTalks and what a fiasco it turned out to be. The most common question in food circles over the past weeks was whether you would be in Paris for the event as if being there or not separated the wheat from the chaff.
What was meant to be a celebration of Mauro Colagreco and his number 1 position in the list (he will enter the hall of fame and will no longer be eligible to compete for the number 1 position following the change in rules earlier this year) turned out to be an embarrassment for the organisers who were criticised for organising a panel discussion without a single woman in the panel.
Conscious of the fact that next year’s award will be held in Antwerp, Belgium and also the fact that the organisation has been often criticised for the very small number of French restaurants in the list, the World’s 50 Best might have decided to organise an event in Paris to give its voters the possibility to visit and vote for French restaurants. Indeed, this year’s elimination from the list of Massimo Bottura (he was number 1 already and thus entered the hall of fame) saw Italian restaurants face declines in the rankings when one would have expected them to have a golden year.
But it ended up backfiring big time with the organisation facing harsh criticism for the lack of women in the panel. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants have often been criticised for a lack of diversity. For many years, they’ve had to face criticism for a visible lack of female chefs in the top 50. They tried to make amends by changing to a voting panel with a 50/50 ratio and even boasted about the fact that there were 5 women in the top 50 in this year’s list. The proof of the pudding was in the eating and they failed miserably when they came to organising the #50BestTalks in Paris.
From the outset, it is important to set the record straight. I was not in Paris for the event and my reflections are based on what I’ve read in social media (in particular Twitter) and also the excellent article by Lorenza Fumelli in the Italian popular website Agrodolce, which together with the reportage of the French media heavily criticised the lack of female representation in the panels.
Apart from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants who were forced to go on the defensive saying there was a female speaker (the talented Manu Buffara) during the event and the catering was in the hands of female chefs, top French chef Yannick Alleno also came under fire for a comment which left much to be desired. He complained in a way that female cooks were hard to find as they did not want to work in the evenings as they had families to raise. He later felt the need to make an apology on Twitter saying: “I apologise for my statement at the #50BestTalks. My intention was not to try and reduce the importance of the female role in raising a family but also recognising that one need to appreciate their important and the fact that they give birth to children.”
The #50BestTalks started with all good intentions. In a gastronomic world that is often living in a bubble, it was a different format to the show cooking that has dominated gastronomic events around the world where chefs travel around the world to showcase a few of their signature dishes while telling their story.
So the initiative needs to be applauded because discussion and best practice are what’s needed. Important lessons need to be drawn from the Paris debacle because in today’s world, it is unacceptable to present a panel that discusses frontiers without focusing on the issue of equality (and not just gender equality). The fact that it happened in France, the place which gave rise to hierarchy and a certain army style in the kitchen is not a coincidence.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has a very important role to play given the influence it has in world gastronomy today. It may be feeling the pressure of having created a global circus that has gone out of control but that pressure needs to be reigned in. The restaurants and their chefs that have been in the limelight for the past years with their number 1 position may have realised the time has come and have quietly exited the stage. What comes next is therefore extremely important.
There are many examples of chefs that have tried to break the boundaries to give their staff better working conditions, more flexibility, less working hours, even less working days. They need to lead the discussion because this is a challenge that exists in all corners of society today. It is the challenge and daily struggle of working parents who share the burden of raising children in a frantic world which never stops.
Moreover, lessons need to be drawn from other industries because the challenges faced by restaurants are not unique. Working hours and working times may be difficult but so are those of many other professions.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants like Michelin earlier need to adapt to the sign of the times. May this be an important warning signal for them to change their ways and take diversity and female representation more seriously. Otherwise, there will soon come a time when chefs will start to desert the events not to tarnish their reputation. It may soon come to that.