Forty-five. That’s the number of James Beard Award chef semifinalists Charleston has had since 1997. Arguably one of the most important accolades one can earn in modern cuisine, that number is pretty big. For contrast consider that Nashville has only had 19 chef semifinalists within the same time period and ironically one of them belongs to Sean Brock — he’s a semfinalist this year for Outstanding Chef for Nashville’s Husk. But back to Charleston. This large list is really no surprise. The Holy City has been steadily in the running for numerous James Beard Awards, namely Best Chef: Southeast, nearly every year for two decades thanks to our rich pool of talent, people like Two Boroughs Larder’s Josh Keeler, Cypress’ Craig Deihl, and this year’s two Best Chef: Southeast semifinalists, The Grocery’s Kevin Johnson and Oak and The Macintosh’s Jeremiah Bacon. And we should be proud of them. They’re all more than deserving of the honor and they all contribute to the fact that we live in an amazing food city with some of the best and brightest in the nation. There’s just one problem. Of the 16 people who have earned Charleston’s 45 nominations there’s only one woman on the list: WildFlour Pastry owner, Chef Lauren Mitterer.
So what? So everything. This city has many women who are equally worthy and yet, no dice. So the question isn’t where are the great Charleston female chefs? It’s why aren’t you seeing them?
Over the years, multiple publications have analyzed the gender disparities of the Beard Awards, but it’s a bit stunning to see the divide in our city right there on a spreadsheet, especially when you consider how many excellent female chefs work in Charleston, not to mention the importance we’ve given the accolade. Just consider what a James Beard Award can do for a business.
Eater.com did an anecdotal survey of some Beard award finalists in 2014 and asked them how much the award mattered. Jon Shook, chef of Animal in Los Angeles, put it best, “It helps put people in your seats.” One can see that in action in Charleston. Just take a look at any of the local winners’ establishments. Robert Stehling won Best Chef: Southeast in 2008 and Hominy Grill still has lines out the door for brunch every weekend. At FIG, which now claims two Beard winners — a Best Chef: Southeast 2009 win for owner and Chef Mike Lata and another Best Chef: Southeast 2015 win for Executive Chef Jason Stanhope — you can’t get a reservation unless you call a month ahead and even then it’s a gamble. I know, I’ve rolled the reservation dice and lost a few times. And dare we even get into the Beard magnate that is Sean Brock? The man practically has a license to mold his own medals. Brock has been nominated eight times for three different categories and won Best Chef: Southeast in 2010 and another last year for his cookbook Heritage. His status as a repeat nominee has made him a household name far beyond the South and created what is akin to a Colbert Bump within the F&B community: If Brock deems your food or product good, your stock goes up. Just look what he did for Waffle House.
So you’d have to be crazy to try and argue that the Beard Awards aren’t important. They are and that’s why the equally qualified female chefs of Charleston need to get nominated. But how do they do that?
Lauren Mitterer admits she doesn’t have a clue. The three time Beard semifinalist first made the list in 2008. “I got it when I was at Red Drum,” she says. “How I got selected is a mystery to me.”
According to the Beard Foundation, there’s no mystery at all. Jamesbeard.org’s procedures page reads: “Anyone can submit a chef or restaurant for consideration during the open online call for entries in the fall.”
Outstanding Pastry Chef
W: 18 https://t.co/BKk4FiQsTi
— Helen Rosner (@hels) February 17, 2016
Hanna Raskin, Post & Courier restaurant critic and James Beard Award judge (she votes on the semifinalists and finalists, but doesn’t take part in determining the long list), says the Award Committee — made up of 17 people — “shuffle through hundreds of names and produce a category ballot with as many as 20 names. Taken together, those ballots compose the long list” — a.k.a. the semifinalist list. Incidentally, the 17 committee members are a 50/50 male to female split. But that doesn’t mean the finalists are so even. Yes, 18 of the 20 pastry chef semifinalists this year are women, but in the Best Chef: Southeast category, women only account for two — Kathy Cary of Louisville, Ky.’s Lilly’s Bistro and A Chef’s Life star Vivian Howard of Kinston, N.C.’s Chef and the Farmer. So did the James Beard Award Committee feel no female chefs from Charleston were worthy of inclusion? Raskin doesn’t think so. “The awards are a reflection of the industry they celebrate. I’d love to see more women on the longlist. But I can’t think of any women who were slighted or edged out by less-talented men.”
Mitterer isn’t so sure.
“Do I think women get overlooked? Hugely. There are lots of women here who are qualified to be on that list,” Mitterer says.
Four time Beard cookbook award winner Nathalie Dupree agrees. “I was very disappointed yesterday when I opened the paper and saw that no women from Charleston had been nominated this year,” says Dupree. “I just think that women have been ignored in part because we do have talented men here and in part because the women have not been doing the things that get you nominated. They haven’t played the game.”
What’s the game? According to Dupree, local chefs must go out of their way to get noticed by doing things like attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, flying to New York City to host a dinner at the Beard House, and, of course, pressing the flesh with visiting reporters and Beard Award influencers when they’re in town.
“I think when you’re not a shmoozer, when you don’t play the boys’ game, that you put yourself in an awkward place,” says Dupree. She sites Charleston Grill’s Michelle Weaver and Jill Mathias of Chez Nous as examples of talented women who have been overlooked.
“They’re just as worthy of a nomination as some of the other ones, but I have an impossible time getting Beard people to go to Chez Nous,” says Dupree. As the culinary matriarch of Charleston, Dupree is constantly being asked for Charleston restaurant suggestions, but she says when she points people to the tiny French restaurant, many shrug it off. “It’s just not hot. It’s run by a woman. It’s not on their radar,” Dupree says.
Compounding Chez Nous’ disadvantage is the fact that the restaurant doesn’t employ a publicity firm. On the flipside Michelle Weaver has the Belmond Hotel’s publicity team behind her and still hasn’t been nominated, which Dupree finds all the more perplexing.
“Certainly Michelle is doing an incredible job, consistent and every bit as good as Bob [Waggoner], who she took over for. And yet I don’t see the PR people at the hotel promoting Michelle the way they did Bob. He had his picture in the restaurant’s window and so forth and so on. Nobody has done a concerted thing for her,” says Dupree.
Not so, says Catherine Gryniewski, marketing and brand strategist for Belmond Hotel. Gryniewski says the hotel promotes Weaver quite a bit, but adds, “From an awards perspetive, Michelle is the type of person who just wants to be in the kitchen cooking. At the end of the day, that’s what she’s most passionate about. We take her lead from a marketing perspective.”
So what’s a gal to do? Dupree and Mitterer believe that the only way women in Charleston will stand a chance in getting nominated is if they band together.
“Women have to work together to promote themselves. They have to understand how to network,” says Dupree. That’s why she encourages other female chefs to join the Charleston chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization of professional female leaders in the fields of food, beverage, and hospitality.
Mitterer is a member and says Les Dames has given her an outlet to not only socialize with her peers, but support her fellow sisters in the Holy City’s F&B scene. “Sororities exist for a reason,” says Mitterer. “Women coming together and supporting each other is crucial.”
But teaming up to promote one another, even if it helps gain another Beard nom, doesn’t guarantee kitchen equality. Mitterer knows this first hand.
This fall she was invited to serve at a Taste of America dinner at the Cedar Room. The event, dubbed A Night of Culinary Stars, featured chefs Jeremiah Bacon, Craig Deihl, Kevin Johnson, Josh Keeler, and Jason Stanhope, Art Smith, Mike Lata, and Mitterer serving dessert.
“The kitchen at the Cedar Room is tiny,” Mitterer recalls. “It was filled with all the chefs and their sous chefs and it was just the biggest testosterone fest,” Mitterer says, adding that the entirely male kitchen was a sea of men clamoring to impress and assist one another. That is until her dessert course.
“When it was my turn to plate the only person who helped was Mike Lata,” she says. The exclusion left her reeling. Here she was at an event seemingly honoring the top dogs of Charleston food, of which she was a part, and Mitterer couldn’t even get a hand amongst her peers.
“I donated all my product and time to that event and I left feeling really awful about it,” Mitterer says. In contrast, two weeks later Mitterer volunteered at the Bad Bitches’ all-female ‘80s Asian Fusion pop-up dinner. The event, organized by founders Sarah Adams, Randi Weinstein, and Kelly Kleisner was designed to showcase the best of Charleston’s female F&B leaders.
“It was a great time,” says Mitterer. “No one was trying to out do or impress each other, they were just helping out.” At the Bad Bitches event, Mitterer was an equal.
Throughout her decades of culinary experience Nathalie Dupree has faced similar instances of feeling like an outsider in the male-dominated industry. She explains it this way, “It’s not that the men don’t like you, it’s that they don’t see you.”
Mitterer, Dupree, and Adams will be the first to tell you everyone on this year’s James Beard longlist deserves to be there. But maybe a few other names do to.
“Women in our city will to continue to produce at a high level,” says Adams. “The talent is here and there is no doubt in my mind that they will have their time.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.