Maria Canabal on Celebrating Women in Gastronomy

Food Features
Maria Canabal on Celebrating Women in Gastronomy

Maria Canabal, founder and President of Parabere Forum, cites Ban Ki-moon as the inspiration for the annual meeting that promotes women’s points of view and voices in the food industry.

After attending a press conference featuring the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ms. Canabal developed a theory. “On the way back home I called a colleague and I told her, ‘I think Ban Ki-moon is a feminist.’” The colleague wasn’t easily convinced. “She started to laugh and she told me, ‘Listen: first, he’s a man, second he’s Korean, and third, there are so many conflicts and wars and problems all over the world that I think this guy has no time for women.’”

A couple of months later, Ban Ki-moon unveiled his HeForShe Campaign. Upon hearing the news, Canabal did the natural thing. “The first thing I did was call [the same colleague] and tell her I was right.” But what she did next was something extraordinary. “Then I thought about what I could do to promote diversity [in the food industry] and this is how Parabere was born.”

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The first meeting of the Parabere Forum was held in 2015 in Bilbao, Spain and brought 300 delegates from 30 countries together. The 2016 event in Bari, Italy saw similar numbers and enthusiasm, bringing together diverse influencers such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, chef Dominique Crenn and restaurateur Barbara Lynch.

Maria Canabal took time out from her internet campaigns and planning the 2017 Parabere Forum to speak with Paste about the importance of women helping women and how to create change and encourage diversity in the food and wine community.

Paste: This year for the opening speech at the Parabere Forum, you said, “Great women empower other women to be great.” Could you talk a little bit about why this motto is important to you?

Maria Canabal: This inspiration comes from Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become a U.S. Secretary of State, who once said, “There’s a very special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” and I fully agree with that because this idea of empowerment, this idea of diversity, this idea of balance, is work that needs to be done on a daily basis and everyone should help. It is not only the job of the government. Also what I said at the conclusion of the forum is that we can’t count, in our case, on curators of festivals, competitions or conferences to promote diversity. We can only count on ourselves. So it’s very important that women support other women. The woman in front of you is not an enemy; she’s a sister.

Paste: One thing that really touched me about being at the Parabere Forum for the first time this year was seeing that not only were there a lot of amazing women who were giving presentations, but also there were so many great exchanges that were going on between the women in the audience. Parabere really creates that community for women to empower each other, which I think is really powerful. Afterwards I noticed the hashtag #paraberewoman and people were tweeting and Instagramming about their #paraberewoman. Could you talk a little bit about that and maybe talk about one of your Parabere women?

MC: This is a campaign that we launched for the first Parabere Forum in 2015. In the beginning we asked very well-known chefs, especially male chefs, like René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen) or Alex Atala (DOM, Brazil), to pay tribute to the most important women in their careers. The sentence to use was more or less, “My #paraberewoman is X; what I learned from her is X.” It was very funny because in the beginning it was only the chefs, but then the people — you know, Alex Atala has 400,000 followers — the people started reacting and responding, saying “My #paraberewoman is my mother,” and things like that. But the main idea was that world renowned chefs cite the most important woman in their careers.


Paste: So this series is called “Unsung Heroes” and I think women, across the board, are often unsung heroes, especially in the food industry. At the Parabere Forum you bring these unsung heroes together, a lot of them are women that many of us have never heard of. How do you find these unsung heroes?

MC: Well, I think it’s very interesting that you say people haven’t heard of them, because all the women who come to the Parabere Forum as speakers have international recognition and important awards. It’s the media that is not doing its job.

I’m a journalist and the thing is that our job is to search and investigate… I think I’ll never forget this cover of TIME magazine [The Gods of Food, Nov. 18 2013, which featured Alex Atala, René Redzepi and David Chang on the cover] with these three guys. I have really nothing against them, but this cover is the result of the job of a very bad editor. This guy [Howard Chua Eoan], the former news editor of Time — I know him — he’s hanging out with the 50 best chefs, with Michelin star chefs and events featuring only men. So, in fact, he just wrote about what he knows, and what he knows is the boys’ club. So it never occurs to him that there are women with seven Michelin stars, [Carme Ruscalleda], which is more stars than the three guys together on the cover. This is a typical example of a journalist — even worse, an editor — who only writes about what he or she knows. You should do research; this is part of the job.

Paste: In response to journalists not doing research or only writing about what they know, you created a database of contact information of women in the food and industry. Can you talk a little bit about that and who it was made for and why people should use it?

MC: We have a database of 5,000 women. They are chefs; they are producers, farmers,
sommelières, a lot of food anthropologists, scientists. It’s a solution for all these people who say “We can’t invite women because there are no women.” We have 5,000, so at least one or two will be available for your conference. The idea is that this database is free, so it’s at the disposal of everybody. You can see, if you follow our Instagram — there’s a lot of events, a lot, where there are only men. It’s a shame, a shame. So we always, on Instagram, take a picture [from the event] and we post it with the message:“If you have no women, you’re missing 50 percent of the talent,” and we always say, “We are at your disposal for reaching balance; you know, it’s for free.”

Paste: It’s a really great resource for organizers of events, journalists or editors, like you said. I also really like your philosophy that you have about women who are invited to conferences and find out that they’ll be the only woman at the conference. What do you suggest to women who find themselves in that situation?

MC: Well, you know, it happens to me. I tell them, “I’m coming if there’s another woman — I don’t want to be the only one.” If they say that they do not know other women, I tell them that I know other women, and I give them a list. So, if you’re the only woman on a panel or the only woman on a jury for a competition, I would say it’s your fault, because you always have the opportunity to say, “I’m coming; that’s great; thank you for thinking of me … but I don’t want to be the only woman.” Because otherwise you are “the” woman of the competition — you’re their clean conscience. This is not diversity. To be the only woman is unacceptable, and it’s even worse because you are playing the game.

Paste: You become the token woman.

MC: Exactly. This approach is not acceptable.

Paste: You can see, like the Taste of Paris event where there were 17 men and one woman, if she had brought another woman she would’ve doubled the amount of women at the event. It’s not equality, but it’s better than one.

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MC: The worst for me is that these conferences, and panels or congresses — a lot of the curators are women. This is, for me, the worst. Nearly 90 percent of curators of events all over the world are women and they don’t think about inviting women. They only invite guys. So I’m sorry to say that they are bad at their jobs because they choose the easy thing — using a list, or rankings, or awards — and they just invite only men. You do not need a curator for this. You just need someone who is able to read a list and to make a phone call.

Paste: It’s shocking for me to see, year on year, events like Omnivore that systematically exclude women. We’re in a field where there are so many female professionals in the food industry it seems almost hard to leave them out of events. But we see it happening over and over again.

MC: The thing is the founder of Omnivore [Luc Dubanchet] specifically has a real lack of knowledge. He claims that he travels the world in research of talents and that there are no women. For example, he said several times publicly that there are no women networks and if there were women networks they would never work.He doesn’t know that there are already a lot of women networks. Les Dames d’Escoffier has existed for years, there’s the Toklas Society, Fully Booked and the Parabere Forum, so you know this is a man claiming that women networks don’t exist and they would never work. So he has a real lack of information. For example, he says publicly, in the last interview that I saw with the owner of Omnivore, that male chefs should take care of marketing and promoting and selling, but female chefs shouldn’t — women should really be in the kitchen. So you see this commentary, with the owner of Omnivore saying things that are totally bullshit.

Paste: It creates a very toxic environment for women to be in if they feel like they’re going to be condescended to or not appreciated. If the few that are invited feel that sort of disregard for their talent and their work, that makes it really unhealthy and unbalanced.

MC: To be an entrepreneur is not easy and imagine how hard is it, when in addition, as a woman, you open a restaurant in an environment that is hostile. The thing is, when women do something, it’s never right. If you are too tough, you’re a bitch. If you’re too soft, you’re emotional. You’re never right, you know? So if you start promoting your restaurant, going to conferences, going to events, giving lectures, people will say you are never in the kitchen. They would never say this to a guy, but they would say it to us; again, whatever we do, it’s never right.

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Paste: It was really moving to be at Parabere Forum — men are invited and present and it’s not at all exclusive — but it is obviously predominantly women and it feels like a moment in time that exists outside of that very toxic and male-dominated world. It’s a time for women to come together and share and talk about their experiences. I’m really excited about next year and I know that’s a way off now, but I wonder if you have any ideas about the theme or any sneak previews that you can give us for Parabere Forum 2017?

MC: Well, the theme will be “sustainability” … in fact, the theme will really be “redefining sustainability,” because the word “sustainability” has been used and used and used, often in the wrong way. A lot of people in the food and wine world think that sustainability is kilometer zero, but sustainability is much more. Sustainability begins with education, for example, which is so important. If society is to evolve towards greater sustainability, greater equality, stronger growth and increased social progress, women must be able to take their rightful place.

Emily Dilling is the author of My Paris Market Cookbook: A Culinary Tour of French Flavors and Seasonal Recipes and founder of the Paris Paysanne blog. She currently lives and ferments in Pouillé, France.

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