Midway through the meal, the chefs enter the Forlino dining room. They neither pose nor glower, nor lap up adulation like F1 champions. Instead, Giovanna Milanese-Randone, Gianna Fossati and Maresa Biovi weave between tables to personally top up our plates with verdantly pestoed pasta. It’s something of a watershed moment for this 20th edition of the World Gourmet Summit.
“People get a little bit bored of these Michelin stars, so we’ve tried something different,” says Paolo Randone, Giovanna’s son and the then-GM of the Singapore-based DHM restaurant group. Hence Le Tre Mamme, the three mothers and guest cooks, presenting Ligurian classics prepared by their own non-restaurant-trained homemaking hands.
Chefs and mothers. The image of a mother planting a culinary seed in her progeny that later blossoms into chefhood is a powerful trope. French chef and TV personality Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin fame, chronicles a childhood and apprenticeship filled with nurturing mother figures (and abusive masculine mentors) in his autobiography 32 Yolks. Chef-founder of New York City’s Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton writes with vehement eloquence about maternity’s light and dark sides in her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, even of how the grinding multitasking it requires carries over to sharpen one’s line-cook skills.
Why, then, would it be so norm breaking for three mothers to cook at a restaurant for paying customers? I watch other diners during the meal. They lap up the luscious pesto, pasta swathes scattered with bottarga and succulent stuffed veal belly, but do I detect some wistfulness on their faces? Some denied expectations of molecular pomp and foofaraw? Why shouldn’t mammas receive the same acclaim as white-toqued men?
For the past two years, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list has crowned each year’s Best Chef and Best Female Chef. Responses have been predictably mixed. Some are glad for any kind of lady-based affirmative action; many are offended at women chefs being classed as a “subspecies”; still others note the tautology of the query: “Why aren’t more women prominent in a system built, regulated and dominated by men for mostly other men?”
Interview female chefs, at least in some countries, and you’ll hear some reasons: everyday workplace sexism, F&B’s heavy toll on one’s health and family life, infrastructure and hours which militate against the co-existence of motherhood and career. Also, persistent stereotypes: According to a sociological survey reported on The Feminist Kitchen, male chefs are more often feted for grandstanding iconoclasm or dogged individuality, but female chefs more for adhering to tradition and cooking to nourish, not bedazzle. Only after interviewing the mammas do I realise that I have partly suckered myself into the latter stereotype, quizzing them more about tradition and family, less about their creative drive. Che stupido.
Some women have reached the summit. Consider two-Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze at London’s The Connaught, April Bloomfield and her five-restaurant empire in New York, three-Michelin-starred Elena Arzak in San Sebastián, and Atelier Crenn’s Dominique Crenn, the world’s 50 Best Female Chef winner for 2016. In some cultures, matriarchs rule the culinary roost from a place of honour, not a second-rate throne.
Watching the three mammas prep for that day’s dinner service, conferring with Forlino’s executive chef, Yohhei Sasaki, and directing the sous chefs, the surety of their command is evident, as is their authority over their metier.
Stereotypes misapprehend what cooking is: Art is nothing without craft to call it into being; craft is soulless if visionless and merely rote. Truly talented cooks of any gender confound and rise above clichés. The most sheerly satisfying food I’ve ever eaten owed its appeal not to any twee notions of “masculine” or “feminine” style; rather, it distinguished itself by how the interplay of its aromas, flavours and textures achieved a sensuous integrity far greater than their mere collation.
Cooking at this exalted level requires both a strong personal vision and a desire to connect emotionally and intelligently with the diner – traits shared by all great artists and craftspersons.
Was such food fed to me more often by women or men? My brightest-burning memories seem at least equally distributed. It’s high time – in fact, overdue – for the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge that chefs vary just as much within a gender as they do between genders, and to blind themselves appropriately.
Gender stereotypes only get reinforced by kitchens that reward competitiveness, physical endurance, pugnacity and a certain disregard for work-life balance – in other words, alpha male traits. Read almost any chef’s memoir to see this painted in queasy living colour. If celebrated female chefs are rare, it is only because they are either not allowed or not willing to lay stakes in this game.
Perhaps women chefs simply aren’t interested in the kitchen as a martial arena or territorial proving ground. Perhaps they just want to cook because they revel in the activity, the medium of expression. The three mammas certainly do. What do they most want to impart to Singaporean diners? Their simultaneous, immediate answer: Simply that passion is always the crucial, unsecret ingredient in the best cooking.
“You should have seen them the other day,” says Paolo. “The three of them started arguing when they were preparing a chocolate cake. One said to the other: ‘No that is no good. I prefer my recipe; it is better.’ So then they each made a cake, and made our chef try them all so he could choose one. So he did, and obviously one mamma was very happy, and the others were upset. Because they really, really care about what they do.”
Mother knows best.