Pale, male and stale? Fixing hospitality awards' diversity problem

02 June 2022 by

Accolades in the hospitality sector are still stuck in the past with recognition still mainly going to white, male chefs cooking European cuisine. Andy Lynes looks at what is being done to change that

If you believe the major restaurant guides, the best chefs in the UK are white, male and cooking fancy French or modern British food. In February this year, Michelin awarded 32 new Michelin stars (one three star, five two stars and 19 one stars) of which only four went to restaurants serving cuisine other than that of northern Europe.

Chinese-Canadian chef Jeremy Chan's West African-influenced Ikoyi was awarded two stars, the London outpost of Indian restaurant brand Jamavar won one star, as did Mexican chef Santiago Lastra's Kol. The only female-fronted restaurant to be newly recognised with a star was Home in Penarth, which is jointly helmed by father and daughter team James and Georgia Sommerin.

Of the 194 starred restaurants in the 2022 guide, only nine are fronted by women, including Core by Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze at the Connaught (both three stars), Northcote and Cail Bruich (both one star), and just 15 serve cuisine other than that of northern Europe. Indian food is represented by restaurants including Gymkhana and HRiShi at the Gilpin Hotel & Lake House, Japanese by Endo at the Rotunda and Umu, Korean by Sollip and Chinese by Kai, two branches of Hakkasan and A Wong (the only non-European restaurant other than Ikoyi to merit two stars).

The highest awards bestowed by the other major UK restaurant guides tell a similar story. In the AA Guide's top restaurants of 2022, which includes those with three to five rosettes (roughly equivalent to one to three Michelin stars), nine are fronted by women and just 10, all located in London, serve non-European food. The most recent Good Food Guide Top 50, published in 2020, featured three female-fronted restaurants, with A Wong the only non-European restaurant in the list. Harden's Guide's Top 100 list 2022 included nine female-fronted restaurants and 10 serving non-European food.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Michelin was not available for comment for this article. While it would be wrong to read too much into any apparent reticence (the guide has never really overcome its reputation for general obfuscation), it certainly does little to dispel the presumption, based on the above analysis, that gender and ethnic diversity may not be top of the agenda.

Favouring the French in awards

"Michelin has such a difficult history that it would be better with a guide like that to throw it out and start again," says Kabul-born Mursal Saiq, co-founder of Cue Point British Afghan barbecue pop-up restaurant and catering company in London.

"The French style, French cooking, the entire language and narrative that is used, takes away from the fact of the cosmopolitan nature of cuisine. Ethiopian, Eritrean, Afghan food; all the different dishes that you'll find in places like Brixton Market and Honiton Hight Street, don't fit the French narrative and French style."

The assessment criteria followed by Michelin inspectors, as laid out on their website, includes using quality products, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques and the personality of the chef in the cuisine. While these might be useful when appraising fine dining, it's arguable that they represent an elitist view and could act as a barrier to recognition by the guides for chefs working in more casual styles that could well include non-European culinary idioms.

Michelin has such a difficult history that it would be better with a guide like that to throw it out and start again

The AA Guide employs similar criteria. Simon Numphud, managing director at AA Media, explains that "it's all about the produce, how it's cooked and how the flavours are borne out on the plate in a balanced way", but doesn't feel the approach is exclusionary.

"I would argue that the philosophy transcends any style of restaurant. It doesn't have to be fine dining and a very high price point. We recognise quite a diverse portfolio of restaurants in my view," he says.

"For as long as I can remember, the guide has been one of diversity and continues to be so both in terms of ethnicity and gender. We span about 30 different cuisine types, whether it's Indian, Chinese, Thai, African, south American or Japanese, they've all been represented over the years and will continue to be. For us, it's about if the restaurant's good enough."

As the publisher of a guide based on a curated nationwide poll of diners, Peter Harden says that, ultimately, which restaurants appear in Harden's Guide is driven by consumer's interests. "If they're interested in searching out some weird and wonderful Sichuanese restaurant, we'll talk about it, but for the most part we probably won't. Non-modern European restaurants tend to be in metropolitan centres – we're really talking about London and Manchester – and they tend to be focused on a particular community and as such tend to be less keen on building a reputation beyond that and so tend to be a bit less of the type that necessarily are attracting themselves onto the radars of guidebooks. They're notable because they offer a taste of home to an expat community, but often the food they offer is not at all distinguished."

Remodelling diversity

Cinnamon Club founder and restaurant entrepreneur Iqbal Wahhab believes that the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have spurred restaurant guides and the catering media to recognise a more diverse portfolio of restaurants, but that there is more work to be done. "There are an ever-growing number of non-European restaurants being properly celebrated by Michelin, though it's still disheartening to see country house hotels winning more rosettes than cutting-edge restaurants like Paradise or Kolamba, which have done so much to elevate Sri Lankan cuisine, for example. The template is still out-dated and of course there are very few black or brown people working on the guides. It would be great to see editors diversify their teams, but they first need to diversify their own outlooks."

Good Food Guide editor Elizabeth Carter says that's just what she is doing, admitting that the guide's recent re-launch under the new ownership of Adam Hyman's Knife and Fork Media that also includes the Code Hospitality Bulletin, has presented the opportunity to take stock. "I think the old model is broken and I'm not just talking about the Good Food Guide. I think the guide model has got to move with the times. Eating out is changing and we've got to reflect that, and diversity is high up on our list," says Carter, who is looking to expand and further diversify the guide's pool of 30 inspectors.

I think the old model is broken and I'm not just talking about the Good Food Guide

In addition, the guide's scoring system has been overhauled in an effort to modernise it and make it more inclusive and diverse. The old one to 10 rating will be abolished and replaced with the categories ‘good', ‘very good', ‘exceptional' and ‘world class', which inspectors will judge against the metrics of uniqueness, deliciousness, warmth and strength of recommendation. In an article on the guide's website, Hyman wrote that the changes, "mark a departure from heralding fine dining as the pinnacle of achievement and promote a more democratic and egalitarian assessment of ‘good food' in Great Britain".

Carter also believes that the decision to free the guide of an annual print publication schedule by moving the guide online and making it accessible via an app will also help improve the guide's diversity. "In the old days, we were constrained. We had a short window of research and then the guide went to print. We were just managing our stock of restaurants and bolting on, whereas doing it online, it's so different. We can put different restaurants in and be a lot more diverse. We're not bound by one particular cuisine or style. We say, ‘good food' on the title, and that's what we're about: good food in whatever shape or form."

Break it to make it

Chef Sally Abé of the Pem in London (named for Suffragette activist Emily Wilding Davidson) believes the guides can go further with their efforts to be more inclusive in terms of both gender and cultural heritage. "It's about breaking tradition, which I think a lot of people are frightened to do. There are women cooking absolutely amazing food, not with tweezers and 25 elements on a plate, but it doesn't mean it doesn't taste good.

"You've got chefs like Asma Khan at Darjeeling Express and Adejoké Bakare at Chishuru – a lot of women of colour cooking food from their homeland and it's the most delicious food you could eat; just because it's not served on a plate that costs £75 and a tablecloth it doesn't mean that it's not really good to eat."

Carter says that, because the main driver of the Good Food Guide is good food wherever it can be found, she is not deliberately seeking out women to represent in the guide but is keen to celebrate women running kitchens and front of house which she believes there will be more of in the future.

"It's so much better than 30 years ago when a woman was celebrated if she got to the top because it was so rare. It's not so rare now. I think the pandemic taught us all a lot of things and one of them was work-life balance. Before it was about men being expected to work 80 hours a week for 40 hours a week pay, but that kind of thing is changing. Split shifts are going to be a thing of the past, so I think that it's going to be a far more female-friendly environment."

Abé accepts that the relative lack of female representation in restaurant guides is partly down to issues within the industry, but believes opportunities are being missed.

"It's not Michelin's fault who's cooking food and who's not, but it was disappointing to see their special awards all being awarded to men because they are in complete control of that. Unless women are represented in these guides, then what is driving women to come into the industry? It's a catch-22 situation but you can't be what you can't see, so unless there are women in these positions, then women will tend to shy away from applying for them. I think it's important more now than ever to shine a spotlight on women and say to other women, you can do this."

Off track

Although a feature in the current AA Guide titled ‘Meet the Chefs' featured white male chefs exclusively, Numphud believes that the guide has a good track record of representing female chefs in its actual listings, reeling off a list of names including Marguerite Keogh at Five Fields, Ruth Hanson at the Princess of Shoreditch and Rachel Humphrey at Le Gavroche.

"Over the many years we've been operating as a guide we've had the likes of JoyceMolyneux, Mary Anne Gilchrist and Sally Clarke, so I wouldn't say it's a new thing. I would say there are quite a number of female chefs in the current guide, considering that the amount of female chefs working in kitchens, particularly at head chef or chef-patron level, is still relatively low."

Adam Coughlan, editor of Eater London, isn't confident that an institution such as Michelin can easily adapt. He says: "One of the issues for Michelin is that if they're to change their criteria significantly, then it undermines their own brand. It's such a revered index. Three Michelin stars is a synonym for astonishingly high-level cooking. If you start to change the criteria by which you measure restaurants, according to those stars, you could, if it's clumsily applied, undermine everything that you've done up until that point."

Although the diversification of food media has gone some way to plugging the gaps in terms of the inclusivity of non-European cuisines by the current UK guides, Wahhab believes they don't completely solve the issue. "It's not acceptable to suggest that lovers of non-European food don't need a steer from these guides and reviews because there are so many sources of information. The people who buy and read these guides tend to spend good money in restaurants, and if they're still being steered towards French and Italian places, then the others remain exactly that – othered."

Although vocally censorious of the current state of UK restaurant guides, Saiq is optimistic enough to speculate on the possibilities of a less flawed system. "Imagine if there was a guide that was more inclusive, more diverse. Customers would be happier because they wouldn't be going to what is basically the same restaurant over and over. The UK hospitality industry would really do well out of it."

Photo: Shutterstock

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