It's Saturday night in Montreal and the city's top gourmands have descended on Toqué! Restaurant. They're here to be wowed by Anne-Sophie Pic, honorary president of this year's High Lights culinary festival, a "special edition" to celebrate women.
The old boys' chefs club of Quebec is out in full force: Toqué!'s Normand Laprise, who hosted the dinner and cooked alongside the guest chef; Carlos Ferreira of Ferreira Café and F Bar; Laurie Raphael's Daniel Vézina; Au Pied de Cochon's Martin Picard.
Ms. Pic, 41,the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars, provides the fireworks, sending out such daring flavour pairings as macaroons with Arctic char roe, mint and black truffles, and venison and candied grapefruit.
When Ms. Pic emerges triumphant from the kitchen, a young woman steps out from the boisterous crowd. Melissa Craig, the award-winning executive chef of Whistler's Bearfoot Bistro, doesn't just congratulate Ms. Pic - she bows to her with folded hands. "You're my hero."
There are few heroines in the macho world of professional kitchens; fewer still in the upper echelons of fine dining. But even by the fairy-tale standards of Food Network fame, Ms. Pic's story is mythic. Born into a cooking dynasty, the petite woman is a fourth-generation chef and the third in her family to win the Michelin three-star rating.
When she was 22, her father died suddenly of an aneurysm, sending the family restaurant, La Maison Pic, into turmoil. It was a tough ride for the self-taught cook, who was not just resented for being a woman, but also for being the former boss's daughter and an upstart apprentice who displaced her more experienced older brother, Alain. As she once said to a biographer, the hostile, all-male kitchen crew watched her every move. "I knew they were looking at me. I knew they were talking about me. … You can say a lot, in France, with your eyes."
In 2007, Ms. Pic recaptured the third star, which her brother had lost, and now with her husband, David Sinapian, she runs a culinary empire that includes the family restaurant and Relais & Chateaux hotel in Valence, a bistro, a cooking school, a wine label with local vintner Michel Chapoutier and another two-Michelin-starred establishment in Lausanne.
"It's still a male-dominated industry, says Ms. Craig, 31, who has also defied the odds by winning competitions (she was the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Champion in 2008), becoming a master of molecular (boys' toys) techniques and running her own fine-dining mini empire, which includes venues around Whistler and a large catering division.
"It makes me even more motivated when I see someone like her rise above it all and succeed in a man's world," she says.
Women in professional kitchens have come a long way: Twenty-odd years ago, chef-instructors at L'Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Quebec in Montreal were still telling female students that their menstrual hormones would curdle mayonnaise.
That's unlikely to be the case at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where women now represent nearly half the student body (up from 3 to 5 per cent in the late 1970s). At the Stratford Chef School in Stratford, Ont., 38 per cent of the returning advanced level class are women.
Increasingly, women are bypassing the pastry and garde-manger girl ghettos (kitchen stations that have more flexible hours and less heavy lifting) for "the line," the most respected positions behind the stove. In Montreal, you'll find female sous-chefs or chefs de cuisine in some of the best brigades - Emily Homsy at Au Pied de Cochon, Emma Cardarelli of Liverpool House and Melanie Blouin at Le Club Chasse et Pêche.
But years after the glass ceilings were broken in other professions, there is a glaring lack of women in the top rank of the restaurant trade.
"Where are all the women?" asked Gourmet magazine in 2008; recent articles in New York magazine, The Guardian and others have questioned why so few female chefs win Michelin stars, sell $100 cookbooks, open spectacular new restaurants or are listed in the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants guide (in 2010, there were three).
In the United States, according to the 2009 salary survey conducted by StarChefs.com, women comprise only 13 per cent of the country's executive chef position, earning an average of 24 per cent less than their male peers.
A large sampling of this small pool was in Montreal along with Ms. Pic for last month's High Lights, which hosted 31 female chefs and 25 wine producers from Boston to Bologna. It was a first for the 12-year-old festival, which usually themes its culinary program around a specific country, region or city.
Not everyone applauded the decision to treat gender as if it were a foreign nation. "I feel like we're back in the seventies," Montreal radio host Diane Trudel told festival spokesman Jean-François Demers.
"I was so disappointed," Mr. Demers says of Ms. Trudel's reproach. "We are so far from that." Yet in the same breath he goes on to say, "I believe women are the most beautiful thing we have on the planet," underscoring how easy it is to fall into gender stereotypes.
Chef Anita Lo, who was in Montreal to cook at KOKO restaurant, says she can understand why some women may be concerned about being marginalized. "But it's good to get people to start thinking about the problem, because there is a problem," says Ms. Lo, who once vanquished Mario Batali on Iron Chef America. "There are women with big names who are struggling to get the funds to open a restaurant, while you have men with lesser names who now have restaurants in Vegas. What's that about?"
Ms. Lo's concern isn't widely shared. Like many women interviewed for this story and others, Ms. Craig says sexism in the kitchen is a non-issue. "It's totally overblown," says Ms. Craig, who says she hasn't experienced overt sexism for a decade.
Dominic Fortin, Ms. Craig's former pastry chef who accompanied her to Montreal, says women have an advantage with a generally more sensitive management style. "She won't yell," he says of Ms. Craig. "But if you do a bad job, she'll look at you and bang her fist on the table. The way she looks at you - that's it."
Mr. Laprise, who employs Cheryl Johnson as his sous-chef, agrees, arguing that a good balance of men and women gives the kitchen a less militaristic ambience. "There's less yelling," he says.
But perhaps it's just a young woman's game. The long hours and punishing schedule do seem to take their toll on women trying to balance restaurant life with family life. "I've lost so many women to families," says Ms. Lo. "To make it in this business, you have to be okay with giving up a lot in life."
In France, Ms. Pic has tried to find that precious balance by learning to delegate so that she can go home every night before dinner service to put her five-year-old son, Nathan, to bed. She said she'd be happy to see him continue the family legacy. And if she had a daughter? She paused, then shook her head. She chose not to elaborate, but the subtleness of her answer spoke volumes.