Kitchen staff at El Bulli, which was created by Ferran Adrià. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
The country’s giants of cuisine are celebrated across the world – and are all men. Now women want recognition of their culinary skills and achievements.
From Ferran Adrià, creator of the world-renowned El Bulli, to giants of cuisine such as José Andrés, who was awarded the Spanish Order of Arts and Letters in 2010, the modern generation of Spanish chefs has acquired a formidable reputation for innovation, creativity and flair. There are around 170 Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain. In culinary terms, the country has never had it so good.
However, in one crucial respect Spanish gastronomy stands accused of culpable conservatism. Where are the celebrity female chefs?
“We’re not being given a voice,” Estíbaliz Redondo, the journalist behind online gastronomy magazine Al-Salmorejo said. Frustrated by the marginal role of women in high-flying gastronomic circles, she and Córdoba chef Celia Jiménez last week held Spain’s first-ever conference on women in the industry. The message from Redondo was clear: “We put this together to say, ‘Here we are.’ We’re not here because we’re women. We’re here because we’re some of the best.”
Even as Spanish women entered the industry in growing numbers during the past decade, the traditional association between women and the kitchen continued to endure, said Redondo, pushing women’s professional contribution into the shadows.
About 40 people – men and women – travelled from across Spain to attend the two-day congress, taking in sessions that ranged from the challenges of communicating gastronomy to a workshop on new ways of consuming wine, such as in sauces, gelatine and jellies. The theme of marginalisation, the catalyst for the conference, was barely discussed. “What we didn’t want to do was to adopt a victim discourse, of ‘Poor us, nobody pays attention to us, we’ll cry a bit’,” said Redondo.
Participants echoed her sentiment, many more eager to talk about sourcing produce than gender parity. Nearly 25 years ago, when Fina Puigdevall and her husband built a restaurant in the house where she was born, she became one of the few women in an industry not many people wanted to be part of. “When we started so many people questioned us, asking us why we would want to start a restaurant,” she said. Their restaurant Les Cols, nestled in the green hills near Girona, now has two Michelin stars and Puigdevall has seen a “huge, spectacular change” take over the industry. “Now everyone wants to be a chef and have a restaurant.” Cooking schools have sprung up to meet the demand, she said, helping to create a more equal playing field for those wanting to enter the industry.
It was that kind of formalisation that helped pave the way for Pilar Cavero, who after graduating from a two-year programme in Barcelona was named top sommelier in Spain in 2013. Cavero, who has spent the past two years working at El Celler de Can Roca, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Girona ranked among the world’s best, had travelled to Córdoba after the congress piqued her interest. “None of us want to preach feminism, but we do want to increase the visibility of the role of women in gastronomy. That’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
When she started her career as a chef in her 20s, Beatriz Sotelo had been quick to dismiss any talk of gender issues: “I’ve never noticed any discrimination. When you taste a dish, you never know if it was made by a man or a woman – both put the same creativity and care into it.”
Years later, with one Michelin star for her A Estación restaurant in the small Galician village of Cambre near A Coruña and a three-year old child in tow, her viewpoint had slightly shifted. “I think women do have more obstacles. When I was 20 I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids at home, I worked 16 hours a day in the kitchen and it was all I lived for.” Becoming a mother forced her to find balance in her life, she said, while still staying at the top of her field.
As the congress ended, Redondo said the movement was just beginning, with similar events planned by other groups across the country: “It’s an indicator of how necessary this discussion is.”
Her focus was now on starting a national association of women in gastronomy, an idea that emerged from the congress. Echoing that of the congress, the association’s mission would be straightforward, she said, summing it up in a phrase that betrayed her roots as a food writer: “A farmer can have the most exceptional tomatoes, but if the farmer doesn’t put them out on display, nobody will know about them.”