"I worry that I will always be seen as a female chef first, and a chef second. It's a corner I am forever stuck in."
35-year old chef Fanny Rey has reason to be mirthful this year. The former Top Chef France 2011 finalist saw her namesake restaurant-auberge in Saint-Rémy de Provence awarded its first Michelin star in February 2017, making her the only woman among the guide’s new winners. She simultaneously earned another honor, the 2017 Michelin Female Chef Award, a prize sponsored by Veuve Clicquot celebrating gastronomic excellence that first launched in Great Britain and Ireland last fall.
For Rey, the star is not only a legitimizing symbol that motivates her staff, but also something that puts her restaurant on the map in a significant way. “We’re in the south of France, where travel is largely seasonal," she said. "Even diners from neighboring villages came exclusively because we were listed in the guide. Prior to that, they didn’t even know we existed."
But it wasn’t the Michelin star she was celebrating on a recent October evening at her restaurant, which she runs with her companion and the restaurant’s pastry chef, Jonathan Wahid, but rather the journey toward a new legacy as an avatar of the women’s movement in the French food world. Whether she anticipated it or not, it’s a role that inherently comes with the recognition, especially in a professional context in which women continue to be underrepresented, often overlooked or reduced to delicate foils to the might of their male counterparts.
In the company of her friends, family, several of her Michelin-starred peers—Nicole and Michèle Fagegaltier of Belcastel, Fabienne Eymard of Benoit, and Sharon Frannais of Le Pêché Gourmand—and staff, Rey spoke to the Michelin Award’s symbolism in her career, the added rigor it invariably requires from her and her brigade and the profound sense of gratitude to everyone who has helped her reach this milestone. “It may be for me, but my success is a team effort, in and out of the kitchen.”
While smiles stretched from ear to ear and guests tucked into the Alpilles-inspired tasting menu Rey had prepared for the occasion, the obvious question loomed large. Why wasn’t this simply a Chef of the Year award attributed to a woman, rather than a special award for female chefs? Should this designation exist in the first place?
Little bestrides the culinary conversation these days more than equality in the kitchen, and many female chefs have been vocal about gender-specific categorization. For Dominique Crenn, specifying a chef’s gender perpetuates a backwards tradition. In her remarks to the Tom Kerridge controversy earlier this year, she addressed the inherent dilemma. “We are all chefs, but I am supposed to be something else, too. I am expected to be a champion on the gender cause on top of that. Don't get me wrong: I want to help pave the way to make things better for female chefs in our industry—and for all chefs in general—but I worry that I will always be seen as a female chef first, and a chef second. It's a corner I am forever stuck in.”
For Michelin, the idea behind the new awards is to celebrate the people excelling in the industry, whether they are in the front of house or in the kitchen—a clear distinction from their stars which are, they reiterated, awarded to a restaurant and its team for the quality of their dishes and the experience, not to one person on their own. To be eligible, individuals must be working or have worked at establishments already listed in the Michelin guide. "The awards, reflecting the inspectors’ favorite person or professional commitment, are awarded independently and collectively by the Michelin Guide inspectors, as is already the case when they decide on the Michelin Guide selections," says Claire Dorland-Clauzel, an executive committee member for the Michelin guide.
While Rey’s work is certainly more visible, French food writer Caroline Mignot says the value of such an award isn’t so black and white. “I’m very sensitive to women’s issues today—how they live, how they work, and how they’re treated—but it’s galling to always see success celebrated in terms of gender," Mignot said. "When this award was announced, I initially rolled my eyes (especially in light of the cringe-worthy Femme de Chef Award—Chef’s Wife Award—from earlier this year). But then I tried to put myself in the shoes of the chef and consider the benefit it must bring to her and her work. I support it so long as it’s helping the cause and makes them more visible in the industry. But it’s still important to ask: at what point does this designation become reductive? Is this a box for Michelin to check to have a clearer conscience?”
The other Michelin-starred chefs in attendance at the dinner appeared flummoxed that there was even a question about the award’s importance, expressing rather their relief that women are being put in the spotlight more and more. Chef Eymard, head chef at Alain Ducasse’s Parisian restaurant Benoit, said she sees a surge of women in culinary and pastry schools, but not enough end up working in restaurant kitchens, let alone rising the ranks to executive chef. With only 15 female chefs in France with Michelin stars, she feels it is crucial to see women like Fanny succeed, especially if it means ensuring young women can move past the roadblocks and pursue careers in food.
The sentiment was echoed by France’s most well-known triple Michelin-starred chef, Anne-Sophie Pic, who salutes any and all initiative that shines a light on the work of women in the kitchen. “That can happen through awards, but also through their evolution in the profession, the signs of which are palpable,” she wrote in an email.
But perhaps the way forward is as the woman of the evening suggested: keep the discussion about the work. “This award proves that cooking isn’t just a man’s game,” said chef Rey confidently. “Enough with the debating, we should all be focusing on what’s most important: the food and making our clients happy.”