Editorial Feature

The Growth of Individuality: How women have shaken up Spain’s food industry

Belén Parra on the growing presence of women in Spanish Gastronomy

While waiting for a table at Dos Pebrots restaurant in Barcelona, the gaze of would-be diners is drawn to the enormous photos hanging on the walls. They are a nostalgic look back at the golden age of Spanish gastronomy, when Ferran Adrià was at the helm.

The photos feature all of the men who were the driving force behind the new culinary revolution that took on the all-powerful France.

There are very few women — almost none, in fact. The image of Carme Ruscalleda is the only female presence in an Olympus of all-male "stars," and the inclusion of her picture here is worth more than a thousand words.

Most of the photos on display are from newspaper archives from the likes of El País, El Mundo, El Periódico, and La Vanguardia, which have all illustrated the predominance of men in professional kitchens, including on their front pages.

This is a group of chefs from Basque Country, the other Spanish region famous for its gastronomy. These are the cooks who, 40 years ago today, founded the New Basque Cuisine. It's a similar situation in that there's one woman (Tatus Fombellida) for 11 men (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Thanks to the perspective gained with hindsight, and the natural evolution that the gastronomic scene has undergone, the very same media are now also giving coverage to talented female head chefs. Far from staying within the domestic confines, these women have forged careers with their chef's whites on, and, like many women, taken on the challenge of balancing work and family.

Montse Abellà (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Of course, they are not the only ones. There are also female maître d's including Mónica Fernández (Grupo Empresarial Bambú), Susana Krcivoj (Rilke), and Mariana Tapia (Noor); sommeliers such as Almudena Alberca (the first female Spanish Master of Wine), María José Huertas (La Terraza del Casino), and Clara Isamat (winner of the best documentary award for "Spontaneous Fermentation"); winemakers such as Maria José López de Heredia and Anna Espelt; pastry chefs such as María Cañizares (Rustic), Montse Abellá (Santceloni), Anna Bellsolà (Baluard), and Andrea Dopico (Alàbriga Hotel); presidents of Academies of Gastronomy such as Ana Laguna (Navarre) and María del Mar Churruca (Basque Country); producers such as Rosa Vañó (Castillo de Canena), Rosa Lafuente (with her eponymous canned foods), and Mireia Barba (Espigoladors); and businesswomen heading up the sector's large conferences, such as Lourdes Plana (Madrid Fusión), Roser Torras (San Sebastian Gastronomika), and Eva Ballarín (Hospitality Innovation Planet). They are enriching the industry considerably, and not just from an economic point of view. Rather their very emergence suggests a change in attitude, particularly among those who live and breathe gastronomy, and especially in view of their respective achievements.

Their bravery and worth must be acknowledged, and it's important to recognize their achievements without quotas, condescending gestures, or paternalistic attitudes.

The individuality of female gastronomes is becoming increasingly pronounced in Spain, as can be seen from their unstoppable rise in every area of the industry. They all want to compete on equal terms, with each other and alongside men, in a world still ruled by testosterone.

You only have to look at Spain's haute-cuisine restaurants; the lineup at gastronomic conferences (which, interestingly, are run by women); the (male) names of industry critics; the panels of the many gastronomic competitions and awards; the annual prizes handed out by influential institutions; and the accolades given by certain international listings. There is still much to be reclaimed and corrected if true parity is to be achieved in all areas. It's not as though there aren't enough women in the world!

Carme Ruscalleda (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Ruscalleda may be "winding down" (she closed her restaurant Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar in October 2018) but she is still the female chef with the greatest number of Michelin stars in the world, for all her restaurants combined. Likely fed up with the nit-picking and pretense of a star-rating system that hides behind the right words instead of actually promoting events relevant to female empowerment, she turned down the prize for the World's Best Female Chef awarded annually by The World’s 50 Best, believing it to be sexist and, therefore, discriminatory. That was a few years ago: a "before and after" in the history of world gastronomy, and an example for future generations.

Elena Arzak (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Awareness is being raised across the board in a sector where balance and long-overdue gender equality must be fought for on a daily basis. Different media platforms act as a mouthpiece when it comes to broadcasting criticism from women in the industry, from chefs to hospitality students. This includes chefs with the nerve of the feminist María Solivellas (Ca Na Toneta, Majorca), the personality of Maca de Castro, or the character of Begoña Rodrigo (La Salita, Valencia), and standard-bearers such as Elena Arzak (heir to a kitchen of matriarchs), who are all too aware of women's social and working reality. Gastronomy is also helping to foster a more equal, diverse, and inclusive society, and progress is continuous and unrelenting. The photographs on display at Dos Pebrots are proof of this.

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