Mexico City native Daniela Soto-Innes, chef of New York City restaurants Cosme and Atla, was honored this year by The World’s 50 Best Awards as the institution’s youngest ever “Best Female Chef” for the innovative Mexican cuisine and behind-the-scenes camaraderie she creates at her establishments. Having spent her formative years as an adolescent in Houston, this 28-year-old chef has always been at the cusp of reinventing what a Mexican-inspired restaurant has to offer its community, applying modern and cosmopolitan techniques to deep traditions of food.
In their announcement, the World’s 50 Best lavished Soto-Innes with praise for giving immigrants the opportunity to work beside her in the kitchen, for having a staff that is disproportionately female, and for successfully running the show without cleaving to the staid hierarchies that characterize the way that many head chefs organize their kitchens.
We’re psyched to see Soto-Innes honored for the hard work she’s put into her endeavors — she’s earned every honor she’s received, including a James Beard Award in 2016 for Best Rising Star — but this latest award is, by nature, brazenly problematic. After all, there is no award for “Best Male Chef.”
Several prominent voices from the restaurant industry have highlighted how ridiculous it is for there to even be a separate award for women, since it would imply that there is some sort of inherent handicap that women have that would prevent them from being competitive in a field of male chefs. Best Young Chef makes sense, since younger chefs tend to be rookies without the benefit of experience, but Best Female Chef? Really? Referring to The World’s 50 Best Awards in 2013, the late Anthony Bourdain tweeted, “Why — at this point in history — do we need a “Best Female Chef” special designation? As if they are curiosities?”
Amanda Kludt of Eater has been equally critical, summing up her criticism of a “Best Female Chef” award in a piece published earlier this year: “Women are people. People are chefs.” She pointed out that the award doesn’t even honor the female chef who is ranked highest in the all-gender list, but is some sort of arbitrary designation given to a woman of the judges’ choice. “Otherwise the committee would have to give it to Pia Leon (co-owner of Central with her husband, and ranked at #4) or Elena Arzak (co-owner of Arzak with her father Juan Mari, ranked at #21) every year.”
The bigger issue, obviously, is that women don’t have access to the same opportunities to succeed and to be judged on their success. To this day, women account for only seven percent of head chefs and owners of restaurants, a discrepancy that was at the root of the documentary A Fine Line which explored the hurdles that women face when trying to break through the glass ceiling in the restaurant industry. The challenges are everything from blatantly being excluded from opportunities to sexual harassment to not having flexibility or resources to care for children.
It’s time for the Best Female Chef Award to be relegated to the dustbin of history and for restaurant insiders to truly honor the talent that drives their industry — paradigm-shifting chefs like Chef Soto-Innes — by giving female chefs their due through real patronage and recognition.