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Women are new stars of French cuisine

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BOB MOON: Here’s something to think about as you’re basting the turkey tomorrow, and wondering when the foodies at the Michelin Guide are finally going to show up and award you the three-star rating you deserve. For a long time, Michelin’s focus has been on the men in the kitchen. But earlier this year, Anne-Sophie Pic became the first French woman in 40 years to earn three stars. She was also voted “Chef of the Year” by her 8,000 fellow Michelin chefs. Another woman recently nabbed the title of “Best French Cook.”

John Laurenson reports on a sexual revolution in that most male of bastions — the French restaurant.

JOHN LAURENSON: A few minutes to go before the first dinner service at one of Paris’s top restaurants, and in the kitchens, amid the flames, the smoke and the knives — the head chef barks orders to his men as if they were securing a bridgehead behind enemy lines rather than cooking. Meanwhile, at one of her two Parisian restaurants, Helene Darroze, “Best Chef 2007” according to the Pudlo food guide, gently questions one of her chefs about monk fish. Women chefs, she says, have a less confrontational management style, and that’s not all they do differently.

HELENE DARROZE: Men and women don’t think in the same way so, of course, in the plate it’s not the same thing. Women cook with their emotions, you know, with their heart. And I think it’s something specific of women chefs. The men cook with technique and after they think about emotion.

Anne-Sophie Pic on stage. The most celebrated chef in France today, tosses sea bass in butter in front of an audience of enraptured foodies. The next free table for two at her restaurant on a Saturday night is next year. For Luc Dubanchet, editor of food magazine “Omnivore,” women like Miss Pic are worth the wait.

LUC DUBANCHET: You know, in France, we have a traditional dish which is the lobster. We know the lobster, and we adore it in France. Very classical. Grilled with just apple or a fruit like that and wine. You see? OK. But she decided to do it in another way. She just decided to take thin strips of raw lobster and thin strips of raw tuna. And she stuck them together with just salt and pepper on it and a wonderful olive oil and the plate was it. It was just fantastic. And I think it’s a more sensitive, more feminine way of cooking.

The success of women like Anne-Sophie Pic and her style of cooking, what “Omnivore” has dubbed “La Jeune Cuisine,” “Young Cooking,” means it’s getting easier for women to find backing to open restaurants. At the Cordon Bleu school for aspiring chefs, 70 percent of the graduates are now women, up from 60 percent a decade ago. And they’re getting better jobs. At the three star restaurant L’Astrance, for example, young talent Pascal Barbot employs nine chefs, five of them women. But for some, none of this is feminine enough.

Food critic Francois Simon being very elegantly, very rude about one of the great brasseries of Paris, in one of his secretly filmed restaurant reviews on French cable TV. He dreams of a return to the tradition of “Les Meres,” literally “Mothers’ Restaurants”. They were the pride of France till the 1960s, an antidote to the showy, egocentric, male cooking which, he says, dominates today.

FRANCOIS SIMON: It’s food with a mustache, too rude and masculine. I mean it’s not mama food: very gentle, very pleasant, very smooth, quiet. Made with love, not only balsamic vinegar.

Is there some of that magic ingredient in the lobster of Anne-Sophie Pic? Mister Simon is skeptical. He thinks the new generation of women chefs are, despite what they say, much too much like the men. Perhaps the real sexual revolution in French cuisine is yet to come.

In Paris, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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