Today Eater posts a letter from New York restaurateur Keith McNally claiming Times dining critic Frank Bruni has an unremittingly sexist slant. The proof? His failure to issue anything more than one star to a restaurant helmed by a woman chef. The issue of women chefs in the kitchen, both their number and their comparative fame to their male counterparts, is important to me. Ed and I have discussed this issue a lot, especially the number of female chefs in New York City versus San Francisco. But I’m not sure McNally is correct here.
First you need to look at the types of places that get three and four stars in New York: they’re high-end gastronomic temples, not cozy small restaurants like Prune and The Spotted Pig. The New York four stars are all French (Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean George), Frenchish (Per Se), or Japanese (Masa). Neither French nor Japanese kitchens are known for their, um, let’s call it open-mindedness. That’s not to say a woman can’t be head chef at any of these places, but if you look at the places women do run, they tend to be more in the school of Alice Waters California/New American places. And as long as four stars at the Times goes to places in the traditional fine-dining model, it’s unlikely women will start getting four stars in New York anytime soon. After all, how many women were awarded four stars when Ruth Reichl was reviewing for the Times?
Of course, that doesn’t address the question of whether the Times should be more open to what three and four star dining experiences should be. And it doesn’t explain why San Francisco has women running large, fine dining establishments (Boulevard, Jardiniere) in greater numbers than New York, places that would garner two stars at least from Bruni if they were in New York. (Though to be fair, all the San Francisco four stars also have men as head chefs.)
What Keith McNally is calling the disease is really a symptom of a much larger problem. Frank Bruni may or may not be sexist, but when you look at what he’s reviewing, it’s hard to find a large number of restaurants chefed by women that he’s overlooking, or failing to properly credit. The real problem here is the real problem in the rest of the working world: women, for all their education and talent, don’t rise as high as men. Whether you want to blame the glass ceiling, sexism, life choices like taking time off for children, the government for not providing maternity leave and child care, or plain old female “opting out,” it’s everywhere you look. Number of women partners in top law firms. Number of women deans at universities. Number of women CEOs of Fortune 500s. Or number of women chefs running nice restaurants. Frank Bruni hardly seems like the problem, but I admire Keith McNally for raising the issue because I think it’s an important one. And I’ll be interested to see if/how the Times and Mr. Bruni respond.