Recounting the women on the James Beard Awards longlist

Vivian Howard is one of two female semifinalists for Best Chef Southeast honors from the James Beard Foundation. (Southern Season)

For millions of American women, me included, rules have generally been a good thing. Rules have helped counterbalance the subjective sexism that led to women not being able to get a loan without their husbands’ say-so, or a job in industries considered unsuitable for “the fairer sex.” Hooray for rules.

Sometimes, though, a procedural approach yields results that don’t feel consistent with the goal of gender equality. This year’s list of James Beard Foundation award semifinalists may represent just such a scenario.

Of the 20 people on the longlist for the Best Chef Southeast 2016 prize, two are women. Sadly, the Southeast isn’t an outlier in that regard: Female representation in all regions is nearly as paltry (and in some cases, worse.) That’s an infuriating statistic – and my guess is if we started counting up people of color or immigrants or chefs who identify as lesbian, gay or transgender, we could find more to get mad about. But since the current fuss is centered on female chefs, it’s helpful to analyze the reasons for their absence.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m only looking at the Southeast region: I don’t know enough about the Midwest region to speculate why the committee couldn’t come up with a single female semifinalist there. But I have a pretty good sense of what’s happening in the six states that constitute South Carolina’s competitor group (for the record, that’s Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, which didn’t claim even one spot on the list.)

I’m a James Beard judge, which means I vote on the semifinalists and finalists, as well as submit a lengthy e-mail message detailing who I think ought to be considered for nomination and why. The committee can do with my suggestions whatever they choose: I’m not privy to those discussions, and have zero idea how the horse trading happens. But I do know the rules governing the awards, and I’m nearly certain they made a difference in the gender makeup of our region’s longlist.

In addition to rules, there are a few customs: For instance, once a chef surpasses the semifinalist stage to become a nominee, he or she usually – but not always – stays on the list until he or she wins or stops cooking. So last year’s eventual nominees are back, with the exception of FIG’s Jason Stanhope, who won, and Rhubarb’s John Fleer. That’s three slots taken.

Since winners don’t reenter the semifinalist pool, none of the remaining 17 slots are going to Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, who won in 2014. So that’s one instance of success influencing the gender imbalance in the Southeast.

Also, chefs have to have spent three years cooking professionally in the region in order to qualify. That’s a rule. In other words, the list doesn’t mean Mashama Bailey of The Grey isn’t fantastic: It just means she’s not eligible for the award yet.

In a lengthy blog post this morning, City Paper’s Kinsey Gidick raised two more names: Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill and Jill Mathias of Chez Nous.

Those are good candidates (although, gender aside, it’s tough for a fine dining chef to win recognition in the Southeast. The only semifinalist associated with a restaurant in the same class as Charleston Grill is Steven Devereaux Greene, who’s at Herons in the Umstead Hotel. My guess is the problem isn’t so much a bias against fine dining as the price of the experience. Remember, voters are writers, and all of them are expected to pay their own way when dining out.)

When we’re talking Charleston, though, there aren’t too many more names in the hopper. In addition to the three-year residency requirement mentioned earlier, a chef must have worked in a professional kitchen for at least five years to be eligible for a Best Chef award. There are few female head chefs now, but there were even fewer five years ago. So in Charleston – and probably in cities all over the country -- talented women are being tripped up by the doggone rules.

Furthermore, the rules stipulate that semifinalists are capped at 20 per category. Gidick writes her sources “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 too.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. For every name added, another name has to come off.

Does sexism play a role in the awards process? On some level, probably: I don’t know too many spheres of American life that are pristine on that score. But the maleness of the longlist isn’t analogous to the #oscarssowhite protest which erupted after the Academy forgot about Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation; Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight; Creed and Straight Outta Compton. (Having this weekend come five films closer to polishing off my annual goal of seeing every movie nominated in every category, I can vouch there was plenty of room for them.) It’s largely a consequence of the qualification system.

While we wait for the awards to catch up with the strides women have made in this decade, we shouldn’t ignore the women who are on the longlist. As Gidick points out, women accounted for 18 out of the 20 shortlisted pastry chefs. Yes, we know women have earned higher-level positions in pastry partly because the hours are more compatible with parenting, and mostly because society is more comfortable with women baking cookies than butchering pigs.

Still, we shouldn’t minimize their achievements. Nor should we forget the many, many unnamed women who contributed to the restaurants being honored for service or wine (such as semifinalists Charleston Grill and FIG, where Morgan Calcote leads the front of the house.)

I’m confident the awards situation will eventually improve. But when that time comes around, female restaurant professionals -- some of whom rightly feel like they have better things to do than flaunt their personalities and build up their brands -- may not even care. And that rules.