Emily Dilling reports on the Parabere Forum, an independent international platform featuring women’s views and voices on major food issues.
“There's only one real food system,” Dr. Vandana Shiva told a room full of female gastronomic entrepreneurs, “and that's the one women shape... the one you are rejuvenating.” The audience consisted of self-labeled “eco chefs” (as opposed to “ego chefs”), social entrepreneurs, and eco feminists, all gathered for the second annual Parabere Forum. Founded in 2015 by journalist and gourmand Maria Canabal, the Forum aims to recognize and promote women in the food world by providing a platform for food professionals to share their views and stories.
This year the event took place in Bari, a small Mediterranean town in the heel of Southern Italy. The small coastal town has a vibrant food culture that is carried on by the women, who make handmade pasta and fried polenta, one of the region’s specialties, every night in their homes. In another part of the city, a different group met to talk about women and food. The theme of the Parabere Forum this year was entrepreneurship, and the event included various speakers who gave presentations on the topic.
Participants in the Parabere Forum are predominantly female (though men are welcome) and the lineup of speakers reflected this refreshing departure from male dominated events. Of the 24 speakers included in the program, 21 were women – a number that grew spontaneously as speakers called upon fellow female colleagues and other inspiring influencers to join them on stage, to share in the recognition and eager applause from a supportive audience.
This is another way the event differs from others of its kind – at Parabere Forum, the stage is for sharing, not for owning. A talk entitled “The Women in my Life” – originally scheduled to feature Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who canceled at the last minute due to a bronchial infection – became an improvised round table by Bottura's wife and business partner Lara Gilmore, who called to the stage six female employees of the couple's restaurant, Osteria Francescana. The women spoke candidly about the changes that occurred in the kitchen after an effort was made to hire more female chefs. Gilmore noted that the kitchen had become a nicer place, where grazie was more commonly overheard, and that the resulting dishes were more creative and expressive in their taste.
Despite changes in Osteria Francescana's kitchen, many annoyances faced by female chefs in the food world at large remain a reality. Jessica Rosval, who has worked in the kitchen for two and a half years, lamented, “People don't ask what we think of Italian cuisine, they want to know what it is like to be a woman,” adding that she wishes the media would seek to “get our cook's voice out of us, not just the woman's voice.” Rosval's comments were met with cheers from the audience, confirming that this feeling isn't rare among women in the profession.
While the Parabere Forum is about sharing and expressing women's voices, the focus isn't on women talking about being women in a certain field. Rather, it's about women sharing their stories of following dreams, creating careers, and building empires. Many of these stories are marked by the fact that their protagonists are women – difficulties in getting financing, balancing work and family life, and a constant feeling of having to prove oneself were common themes. However, these obstacles were met with an equal amount of creativity, passion and industry as those faced by men and women alike, such as building and managing teams in the kitchen, ensuring that one's business breaks even, and remaining creatively challenged by one's job.
“If you're not valued, it gets to you,” Trine Hahnemann – founder of Hahnemann Projects, which provides fresh, homemade food to cafeterias in Copenhagen – told the audience. “If you're treated like shit in the kitchen, you can't cook with love,” she explained. Hahnemann’s presentation, entitled “The Love of Everyday Food and How to Build a Business on it,” began with a bright pink PowerPoint slide and the comment, “What would the world be like if this pink force could be bigger?” For this chef, who sources eight cafeterias and has 45 employees – many of whom have worked for her for as long as ten years, something almost unheard of in the realm of chefs – a world with more pink in it is a world that embraces a love of food with respect for the people who make it, with attention paid to a country's culinary traditions. “I want people to come up to the buffet and think about their grandmother,” Hahnemann told us, in one of many allusions to the important tradition of female chefs in home cooking throughout the centuries.
Preservation of culinary heritage, a responsibility that is traditionally held by women, was the foundation of many inspiring projects featured at the Parabere Forum. Dr. Zoubida Charrouf, a scientist based in Morocco, spoke about her experiences organizing women into collectives across the country, in order to guarantee a fair price for argan oil. This native product takes 20 hours to prepare and, though women hold the knowledge of the process, the oil is taken to market by their husbands or sons, who sell it for less than the value of the women's work and keep the money for themselves. Charrouf has seen the project grow to count 300 cooperatives made up of 5,000 women, whose argan oil is sent to huge clients including the Body Shop and Aveda.
Susanne Hovmand-Simonsen, who took over her family's farm Knuthenlund and transformed it into Denmark's largest organic farm, is also dedicated to preservation and conservation of her country's resources. “We talk about fair trade in Africa, but we don't talk about fair trade in our own country,” she said. Since converting her family's 2,500 acres into sustainable, organic land, the farmer has returned to growing local varieties of plums, peas, and bitter herbs as well as endangered races of cows and pigs. “You never look back and you never regret,” Hovmand-Simonsen assured us in the conclusion to her story, which included tales of struggling to secure backing for the conversion of her farmland. As Hovmand-Simonsen explained, a 120-slide PowerPoint presentation finally swayed her critics into supporting the project.
While many of the women's stories involved creating a role in the industry for themselves, some described the experience of being pushed into positions of power within someone else's empire. Dominique Loiseau, who took over management of her husband Bernard's restaurant after he committed suicide in 2003, never planned to become an entrepreneur. During her talk entitled “The Rebound,” Loiseau told the audience, “I was not prepared for that.”
Before her husband's death, Loiseau explained, “I was working in Bernard's shadow. I was his secretary. I was writing his books because he couldn't sit down for ten minutes.” In the year to follow, Loiseau struggled to maintain the third Michelin star that her husband once had an unhealthy obsession with. “In that year, Michelin came to the restaurant ten times to see how I was doing,” she said, rushing to assure us that the restaurant did keep their star that year. “Now I feel I am the boss,” she asserted, noting that her management style differed greatly from her husband's. “If we have balance, we are happy,” Loiseau said with a smile.
Owning the ups and downs of the business and accepting successes and challenges in stride is the key to Loiseau's personal success in the industry. “We have lost February this year our third star,” Loiseau admitted, with a charming French accent. “That was something special,” she added. Keeping that star may have been just as significant as losing it, because both are important parts of the process of being an entrepreneur. Loiseau's first reaction when she discovered the news was, “I'll get it back!”
The Parabere Forum gives the opportunity for peers to celebrate the ingenuity and grace with which professionals can choose to accept both prizes and put downs. The two days spent among amazing and admirable women were an inspiration to use one’s voice without fear, as a cook, entrepreneur, farmer, creator, server, or eater, as all of these are roles that women shape, rejuvenate, and continue to evolve every day.
Emily Dilling is an American writer, based in France. She is the founder of Parispaysanne.com and author of My Paris Market Cookbook: A Culinary Tour of French Flavors and Seasonal Recipes. Emily currently lives in Pouillé, where she is learning to make beer and wine.
All photos courtesy of the Parabere Forum © 2016.