rumination 37: killing meritocracy…

A few months ago, I posted a picture of a plate of food to my Instagram story.  I purposely  framed the photo tightly – providing as little visual information as possible beyond the linen-lined table top.  But by context, it was clear that I was at a rather nice restaurant, with frilly rimmed china and […]


A few months ago, I posted a picture of a plate of food to my Instagram story.  I purposely  framed the photo tightly – providing as little visual information as possible beyond the linen-lined table top.  But by context, it was clear that I was at a rather nice restaurant, with frilly rimmed china and white tablecloth. Over this photo, I superimposed the following:

“Female chef.  Two Michelin stars.  Where am I?”

I received dozens of guesses, not one of which was correct.

As America (and the rest of the world) lurches inelegantly from one public outrage to another, my blog remains silent, even as many of the pressing topics of the day affect the people and industry to which this blog is ostensibly devoted.  In another life, politics may very well have been the subject of my online thoughts.  But that is not the direction I chose. And you do not visit this blog for political views.  And, unlike so many online personalities these days, I probably have just as little interest in sharing my political views with you as you do in reading them.

But what do you do in a world where almost every topic actually worth talking about becomes a third rail?  Americans, sadly, seem to have chosen to retreat to their corners and dig in. Reason and rationale have been abandoned for tribal warfare.

As I have written on this blog before, sensationalism sells, and media have done a good job of setting fires and fanning the flames. But the media are not entirely to blame. We, the public, have become enthusiastic accomplices in the arson of America. Facts have been traded for emotion; genuine desire for understanding has turned to self-righteous moralizing and demoralizing.

If anything positive has come out of all of this outrage, it is an increased awareness of the everyday reality and struggle of classes overlooked or repressed, and in some cases, abused.  After all, aspiration for meritocracy is merely a platitude if the opportunity to merit is systematically uneven.  We must constantly strive to even the playing field for all.

But at what cost? Or, more importantly, by what methods?

Currently, there are three female chefs in America with two Michelin stars (currently, no female chef in America has ever earned three stars).  Can you name them?  If you’re like the vast majority of the people who hazarded a guess on my Instagram story, it’s likely that you only know of one: Dominique Crenn. [Edited to add: Crenn was awarded a third Michelin star in 2018, a few months after this post was originally published.]  Her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco has neither frilly rimmed porcelain plates nor white tablecloth.  And yet, based on my photo, all but two guesses – dozens of them – put me at her restaurant.  Of the two other guesses, one was for Emma Bengtsson, the Swedish-born chef of the two Michelin-starred restaurant Aquavit in New York City (which, based on recent photographs, does dress its tables), and the other guess was for a foreign chef I did not know.

In fact, I was in San Francisco.  But I was not at Atelier Crenn.  I was at Acquerello, where Suzette Gresham has been cooking for 29 years.  Twenty-nine years.  Coincidentally, the night I was there, so was Michael Bauer, who subsequently penned this article about his visit (which I only found online today, while searching for articles about Gresham).  I don’t have a habit of applauding Mr. Bauer, who recently announced his retirement from his 23-year tenure as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. But here, I pause to give him credit for devoting an article to Gresham, who occupies a rare position in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the country at large.

To be fair, others have written about Gresham before. As far back as 2014, Eater SF interviewed Gresham. And last year, Eater SF included Gresham in a roundtable of female chefs in the Bay Area.  And there are so many of them in San Francisco – outstanding female chefs who have gifted the world with some of my favorite restaurants, three of which I mentioned in my previous blog post: Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and Amaryll Schwertner at Boulette’s Larder.  They have not only appeared regularly on this blog, but also on my social media accounts when I’m at their tables.

But notice that I celebrate these women not for the qualities with which they were born, and over which they had no choice. I celebrate them for what they have earned and achieved in life, despite whatever social and professional challenges have been imposed on them due to gender. They are tremendously talented chefs and have created truly wonderful restaurants, in spite of an uneven playing field.  They prove that hard work and dedication – and, most importantly, cooking good food – win the day.  They (along with chefs like Ms. Gresham; Nancy Oakes, who has been at Boulevard since 1993;  and Traci Des Jardins, whose restaurant Jardiniere – which opened in 1997 – I recently visited for the first time) have withstood the test of time.  These are the reasons they should be celebrated. That is meritocracy.

Ms. Crenn has been an outspoken advocate for the causes she champions.  Good for her – she’s built a platform and is using it (even if I take issue with her approach sometimes).  But while she’s made herself an easy reach for increasingly lazy and shallow journalism, there are many outstanding chefs of diverse backgrounds focused on cooking good food and running a good business instead of courting the media.  Who’s acknowledging them for their work, despite their genetically assigned attributes?

I understand that many industry awards, lists, and rankings are pushing the diversity angle in an effort to raise the tide for all boats.  [In addition to racial and gender diversity, geographic diversity has also become a point of affirmative action.]  And while I think the intentions are generally good, I reject this trickle-down approach because it’s being employed at the cost of meritocracy.  That’s too high of a price to pay, not to mention highly insulting to the integrity of those who this recent social awakening purports to benefit.  I don’t want to be a token. Do you?

We as a society must find ways to champion equality and diversity without killing meritocracy.  Let’s focus on everyday solutions in our respective corners so that, as the field levels overall, these every-so-often superlatives actually mean something.

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3 replies on “rumination 37: killing meritocracy…”

Hear ye, hear ye. I’m all for equal opportunities, but achievement and recognition based on merit is so much better. Glad you used your platform to note that but also to shine the spotlight on incredible individuals like Gresham.
That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the challenge for media is that they often have to cater to their audience. Sometimes the reading audience only wants stories on things/people they are interested in. To have the opportunity to introduce something or someone “new” doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it does – as you’ve noted – occur on the occasion. A post like yours might help some open their eyes to more of these possibilities (as a reader or as a member of the media/person of influence).

Renée, blaming readership is lazy. Media has the power; they are the kingmakers right now. Once educators, they have now become sensationalists. So, as a result, once-educated audiences have gone soft in the head. It’s a vicious, downward spiral. The media can stop it, reverse course, and start educating again. And quality must be the subject of the exploration and lesson.

What about Chef Karen Shields of Smyth in Chicago? She deserves some recognition for their two Michelin stars….