Tom Colicchio: Top Chef—and Closet Feminist

Chef Tom Colicchio has always been one of my favorite parts of Top Chef, because of his firm mentorship and wry humor and, let's be honest, because he's a guy who looks like he's been in a bar fight defending the principle of a thing, and that makes my water boil, if you catch my culinary drift. But discovering that Chef Colicchio is a closet feminist? Well, my pot boileth over.

First of all, check out his using the term "the Hillary factor" in a positive way, while talking about why he thinks Richard didn't claim the title of Top Chef:
Of our final three, Richard had the most experience, the most imagination, and by far the most technical proficiency. He had consistently wowed us during the season, and frankly, this was his competition to lose. So what happened? In short, he choked. My sense is that Richard lacked that last little bit of grit that causes one to hang in there, no matter what. Call it the "Hillary" factor.
Oh. Muh. Guh. Invoking a comparison to Hillary with her resolute determination as something to live up to? Something for a dude to live up to? Why, Chef Colicchio, you'll positively send me to the fainting couch with that kind of talk!

But he was only getting started.

I am glad Stephanie won because I hope it will encourage a new generation of women to follow in her footsteps and in the footsteps of other important women cooking today like Lydia Bastianich, Elena Arzak, Hélène Darroze, and April Bloomfield. And even though their numbers are growing, women as a rule are still a significant minority in the uppermost reaches of the culinary world.

It used to be for lack of opportunity, but I don't think that still applies today. None of the great American chefs (or at least not the ones I respect) have a glass ceiling in their restaurants. Quite the opposite: We like to hire women because they work hard without any of the competitive, macho bulls**t you often see among their male counterparts. The women I've hired help each other, don't jockey for position, and work until they drop. So if the opportunities for advancement that make up the early part of a top chef's career are there, why aren't women availing themselves of them?

Because the perception of opportunity, on the part of women themselves, hasn't kept pace. Women are reluctant to enter the culinary world because they believe (and this is not unjustified) that a cooking career is incompatible with raising children, which leaves those of us who want to hire, promote, and mentor women with a slimmer field to choose from than we'd like. And to an extent, they're right: The bottom line is our society does not yet provide women in the workplace with the type of social supports, like high-quality subsidized child care or extended parental leave, that allows them to fully go for it, and the impact this has on the scope and depth of a career is profound. Right or wrong, men plunge into their careers without much thought about how they'll navigate the work/family balance. They assume someone -- spouse, parent, paid caregiver -- will materialize to take care of it (and usually someone does.) This one assumption opens up an entire world of possibility to a young person in a way that can't be overstated. Ask yourself how many female Ferran Adrias, Thomas Kellers, or Joel Robuchons have chosen a different path -- say, catering or opening a bakeshop -- because it seems more family friendly?
Now, I grant you, there are some generalizations there—not all women get to work for just the chefs he respects, not all women are team players, not all women want to have babies, etc.—but, broadly speaking (pun intended), he hits some good notes here, especially with regard to how this is not just a problem for women to solve, or just a problem for chefs/restaurateurs to solve, but a problem that requires a societal shift in our thinking. And, beyond that, he's asking us to acknowledge male privilege—because what is the ability to launch a career without any significant thought to how parenting might impede it if not perhaps the ultimate privilege?

So, despite a couple of missteps there, it's awesome to see a guy in his position, by which I mean both at the top of his profession but also in the public eye, using that platform to talk about this stuff.

And then he ends with this:
But let's be clear: Stephanie didn't win this season because it was time for a woman to win. That would have been patronizing, and an insult to her and all of this season's chefs who worked so hard. Stephanie won because she deserved it.

And, before I wrap up, I want to go back to Richard for just a moment. Richard was probably the #2 favorite, behind Stephanie, at Shakesville during the Top Chef Open Threads this season, and it wasn't just because of his talent—it was because he was a really decent guy. In one of the finest moments ever on the show IMO, he asked to share his win with Stephanie on a team challenge ("Wedding Wars") after she made a significant contribution he felt was central to the win (the wedding cake).

One of the reasons I recommend to male feminist allies speaking up when your boss credits you with an idea that's really your female coworker's is because it's so pervasive. I've seen that happen more times than I can count; I've had it done to me plenty of times. I've even seen male allies pick up women's thoughts from comments threads here, in which they've been involved, and later post them as their own without attribution, perhaps not even consciously. It's one of those "invisible" bits of sexism that can really hinder women.

So to see Richard so selflessly recognize the contribution of his female teammate to share the win with her was fantastic—and a lovely bit of practical feminism. Thank you, Chef Blais.

And congratulations again, Chef Izard.

[H/T to Feminist Finance.]

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