Isn't it time we stopped asking women chefs about being women chefs?

Chef Analiese Gregory.
Chef Analiese Gregory. Photo: Supplied

The world's favourite model-slash-prime-minister-slash-internet-meme Justin Trudeau shrugged and answered "because it's 2015" when asked why his cabinet was gender-balanced. Such a chiselled answer. And yet here we are in the warped reality of 2017 still seemingly amazed that women are cheffing, DJing, sciencing. When we tire of being amazed, we ask those same women why all their peers aren't also doing those things.

Don't get me wrong, the lack of women at the pointy end of almost any industry is a problem we need to address. When the World's 50 Best Restaurant list rolls into Melbourne in April, we can only hope 2017 delivers more than the two female-run businesses that made last year's cut. And let's just leave the debate about the Best Female Chef award to bubble in its own special corner (the very same corner that many feel the award represents).

But one of the bigger issues that is arising across the battlegrounds is that no matter how many or how forcefully women punch through their respective glass ceilings, they're finding the world ready with another.

Dominique Crenn, of San Francisco's Atelier Crenn, has two Michelin stars and is one of the most interesting chefs on the planet. But you've probably seen more publicity surrounding Crenn's fight against being classed as a female chef, instead of as a chef. "I have spent my career watching from the sidelines while my male chef colleagues are asked, 'What is it like being a chef?' – not a male chef – and I long to be able to answer as they do," she wrote in a comment piece for VICE in 2014.

Are you mad? Great. March 8 is International Women's Day, so timing is apt.

Here's our beef: it's not just distracting and diminishing to ask female chefs to speak about their gender instead of their work, or worse, to speak for women who never became chefs. It's bad sociology.

Chef Thi Le from Melbourne's Anchovy.
Chef Thi Le from Melbourne's Anchovy. Photo: Jesse Marlow

"If you want to know where the rest of the female chefs are, shouldn't you look to the women who finished their apprenticeships and didn't go on?" says chef Analiese Gregory, the Kiwi expat at the helm of Sydney's Bar Brose.

Yep. You should. And when you actually get under the hood of the industry, the numbers are interesting. The William Angliss Institute, one of Melbourne's major hospitality training schools, says enrolment in their cooking courses is 54 per cent female, up from 39 per cent in 2006.

A poll of some of Melbourne's top restaurants shows that while there aren't many female head chefs, it's not the sausage party you might think. At Supernormal, the ratio is 17 men to 11 women. Anchovy in Richmond, headed by Thi Le, has an all-female team, and at World's 50 Best contender Brae, four of 11 chefs are women.

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"We see a benefit in trying to maintain a gender balance in our staffing," says Brae's co-owner and operations manager Julianne Bagnato, "Especially in the kitchen, which can so easily get heavy on testosterone (and all the negatives that come along with that)."

It's not equal, but women are out there.

And let's just take a moment here to acknowledge the forces of nature that are Brose's Gregory, Sicilian pocket-rocket Rosa Mitchell, Anchovy's Le. Or Kylie Kwong and Melbourne's Thai master Karen Batson, Danielle Alvarez and team at new Merivale restaurant Fred's, plus Philippa Sibley, Jo Barrett, Nicky Riemer, Lauren Eldridge, Lake House legend Alla Wolf-Tasker, international croissant boss Kate Reid, Brigitte Hafner and Tonka up-and-comer Kay-Lene Tan.

Danielle Alvarez of Merivale venue Fred's.
Danielle Alvarez of Merivale venue Fred's. Photo: Supplied

That is a deep talent pool of women with city-defining restaurants, and it's only a small cross-section.

And still, there's this: "What does it feel like being a female chef?"

"How do I even answer that?" says Gregory. "It's a hard job, with long hours. But that's true for everyone. Am I supposed to feel different?"

French-born Dominique Crenn, from Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, who won World's Best Female Chef 2016.
French-born Dominique Crenn, from Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, who won World's Best Female Chef 2016. Photo: Supplied

Other times chefs are fed leading questions and have to weigh their answers. Le says of an interview last year, "The journalist kept pushing me to speak about specific difficulties associated with being a female chef, like having kids and marriage and the physical strain. But that's not about being a woman; that affects anyone who is human."

Other assumptions Le's faced: "You've worked under a women – that must have been calm. Nurturing environments are nurturing environments. It was harder working under Christine Manfield than Andrew McConnell!"

Here's the rub. The issues are real. The questions are wrong.

You know what Gregory wants to talk about right now?

"Waste. Restaurants produce a tonne of waste and and I really want the City of Sydney to provide composters. It's an issue that affects us all, and is so important."

You know what Le thinks she can teach an industry heading for a cliff due to burnout and lack of new recruits? "We need to band together, whether it's media or industry, to get more people cooking, inspire them and empower them."

Sure do. Because it's 2017.