THE IRISH RESTAURANT Awards are coming under fire for choosing an all-male chef panel for this year’s event.
As part of the annual event, the awards organise a six-member panel of chefs to prepare a six-course meal for over 900 guests. Last year, Jessica Murphy was the first female member of that panel.
The panel for this year’s event, which will be held next Monday at the Clayton Hotel, was announced last night, and has drawn attention – for the wrong reasons.
“It just feels like we’ve gone ten steps backwards,” Hilary O’Hagan-Brennan told TheJournal.ie. She’s a member of Athru, an organisation promoting female-representation in the Irish culinary arts industry.
O’Hagan-Brennan says it’s disappointing to see – after last year, they thought they were making progress.
Last year, representatives from Athru spoke at Barcelona’s Parabere Forum, an international organisation that ‘represents women’s views on major food issues’.
“We were highlighting the fact that we’re a progressive country and things were moving forward.
It’s just embarrassing really. One of the chefs on the panel said it’s not fair to attack the event because one woman was approached and asked.
But if you have females on the panel, that makes it easier in the future.
The panel is selected by asking the five regional winners from the previous year to take part.
But O’Hagan-Brennan says that at least four female chef winners that she knows of haven’t been asked. Last year Danni Barry, a Michelin-star chef at Eipic, was asked but wasn’t available, and this year she wasn’t asked.
“We’ve contacted the Awards through social media, but we’ve had no response yet,” said O’Hagan-Brennan.
She’s also received the support of Damien Grey, head chef of the Michelin-star restaurant Heron & Grey.
‘Damned if I do..’
Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), says that he’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, when it comes to the Awards’ Chef Team.
He says that the panel was chosen through following a system that’s been in place since the start of the awards, and the all-male outcome wasn’t intentional. A female chef was asked this year, but couldn’t attend.
He says that if a gender quota was in put in place, that would mean some winners from last year’s awards wouldn’t be offered a chance to cook.
“Regional winners would be asking then, why wasn’t I offered?”
He says that they’ve had the same process for nine years, and that’s to offer the five regional winners a place on the panel, and if one of them refuses, they look at individual county winners from that region.
They choose these, he says, by seeing if anyone’s requested to cook for the awards, or by asking county winners in that region, and accepting the first offer that comes back to them.
“What I’d like to know, is why don’t some people get in touch and ask if they’d like to cook?”
He says that the Awards and the RAI haven’t been contacted directly by anyone to complain, but they did receive social media messages ‘out of hours’.
“Why didn’t anyone pick up the phone?”
“I’d be delighted to talk with them about the process and review it with those that are unhappy,” he says, adding “I have to say, it’s great that everybody’s talking about it, it shows the passion there is for this industry.”
Athru was set up last year with an aim to put female chefs ‘on the map’.
The group says they have a contact list of over 200 female chefs – some head chefs, others more junior – who would be happy to be offered a place on the Chef Team.
O’Hagan-Brennan says this isn’t so much about criticising organisations, but more about trying to change things in the industry. “We’re looking to work with the [Awards], understand the process so that we can be progressive and change the optics.”
She adds that not a lot of women go forward for the Awards either, which is a problem in itself.
At San Pellegrino young chef of the year competition last year, there was an all-male judging panel, which created “a furore on Twitter” according to O’Hagan-Brennan. “You had just men judging 50% of the population.
“There was no response again, and we decided that Twitter was not the right place for this so we set up a group including Lisa Regan, their campaigner; Gill Carroll, owner of 37 West in Galway; and chef Mary Farrell to promote gender equality and make it less of a boys club really.”
Jess Murphy has removed her previous comments.