Is there a place for sex in the kitchen?

A storm of controversy greeted this year’s award for the world’s best ­female chef, but it wasn’t surrounding the winner. Instead, as Sudi Pigott explains, it was about whether gender matters in cooking.

What’s indisputable is that Nadia Santini’s tortelli de zucca, literally made as the order is called at the pass, are out-of-this-world ambrosial: ethereally light with mesmerising agro-dulce bite from the pumpkin, amaretti, parmesan and homemade mostarda (apple, pear, peach, apricot, pineapple, ginger, mustard essence and more).

Yet, unwittingly, Nadia Santini, who was awarded three Michelin stars back in 1996, who was trained by her nonna-in-law and hadn’t ever cooked professionally when she married into the family who run Dal Pescatore restaurant in a tiny Lombardian village between Mantua and Cremona, has provoked worldwide debate.

Restaurant magazine has given its Veuve Clicquot World “Best Female Chef” award for the last three years, but when Santini was announced as this year’s recipient earlier this month, the news provoked as much controversy as excitement. The issue wasn’t the winner. As Claire Smyth, chef patron of Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road says: “Nadia runs an iconic restaurant and I admire her as a phenomenal talent who’s been a huge inspiration. To give her and her family recognition is fantastic.”

But chef Anthony Bourdain tweeted: “At this point in history – do we need a Best Female Chef special designation? As if they are curiosities.” Hot debate ensued in New York magazine’s Grub Street and on Huffington Post, with reverberations around the globe.

The burning issues are the implications. Are there tangible differences between the way a chef who makes “pillowy” ravioli and one (such as René Redzepi) who prepares “ash-baked leeks” cook? Do professional women chefs really have a distinctly female sensibility in the kitchen? Is it relevant and necessary for moving towards better equality to have an award just for female chefs, distinct from the World’s 50 Best Restaurant hot list (that features very  few women, though Dal Pescatore has made  the grade on several occasions) announced  next Monday?

Clare Smyth, who’s always worked in male-dominated kitchens, insists she has never really even thought about any gender distinctions. “It is just about doing the maximum, excelling in your job.”

Angela Hartnett agrees: “A cook is a cook. We all want the best flavours.” Yet, probe a bit deeper and pre-eminent chefs from Angela to Nadia, Hélène Darroze and Anne Sophie Pic to Anna Hansen, do consider there are some tangible differences in the female culinary approach.

What’s more, as Anna Hansen reasons, while women remain under-represented in heading up top gastronomic kitchens and less celebrated in mainstream awards, there is a case for creating more enlightened and wider awareness of what other great female chefs have achieved as role models if we want to see more women in the ascendancy and opening their own places.

Nadia Santini is sanguine. She sees the award as an honour to the whole family for a restaurant that crosses the generations (her sons Giovanni, Alberto and daughter-in-law Valentina are now involved, too, her “wonderfully instinctive” 84-year-old mother-in-law still works in the kitchen every day and her husband Antonio runs front of house). “Dal Pescatore is always more than Nadia Santini,” she say. She believes that for women, their role as nurturer does bring a  particular sensibility to the kitchen. “A woman never stops being a mother even if she never became one. It is part of her nature. In her heart and mind a dish must smell good, be delicious,  well-presented, easy to digest and thus delicate and light. Additionally, I studied the chemistry of foods and how cooking must meet nutritional needs and my culinary philosophy is to strike a healthier, lighter balance in gastronomy that always puts the pure flavour of the produce in the spotlight.” For example, at Dal Pescatore, a turbot dish is simply paired with parsley, anchovies and capers in an olive oil sauce with no gimmicks or tricks.

Hartnett, who adores the elegant yet familial feel of da Pescatore, “with a beautiful fire and a dog in the salon,” explains, the essence of Santini’s style (dishes including tortellini in brodo, chargrilled eel, herb omelette), like her own, is based on dishes that she would cook at home yet elevated to something extraordinary, and, while generous, in smaller portions. “It’s also true that as women we’re probably less anal and meticulous about every piece of asparagus being the same size and lying in the same direction. It is more about flavour and maybe about a freer, less structured style, if you look at how The River Café and Sally Clarke cook, too. Maybe maturity comes into it, believing less is more and being able to walk away from over-adorning a plate. I could suggest as well that there is an Italian female tendency to think that food is only part of the deal. It is all about conviviality.”

However, talking about female cooking having a lighter touch is more contentious and cliché-ridden. Think of the real lightness of touch and clean flavours of chefs such as Simon Rogan, Nathan Outlaw and Jason Atherton. Are they metrosexual in their approach or purely following their own idiosyncratic style?

Madalena Bonvini-Hamer, chef-proprietor of The British Larder in Suffolk does, however, believe that women express themselves differently on the plate. “I believe that our style is looser and we care more about the contrasts of shape, texture and colour and how light plays on the plate. I think of my dishes as combining delicateness and voluptuousness.” As an example, she cites her chocolate dessert comprising a round  cremeux, an S shape scattering of crunchy  chocolate soil crumbs and honeycomb, wobbly flakes of chocolate, marsala and honey jelly, soft oval quenelles of praline ice cream and a pretty yet spicy finish of coriander cress.

Anne Sophie Pic, the only three-star French female chef of Maison Pic and a previous recipient of the Veuve Clicquet award, conveys similar sentiments rather differently. “I consider our cooking is particularly appreciated for its sensitivity and elegant simplicity. My quest is always for the essence of products, combined with sensual flavours and textures, elements of surprise, perhaps a touch of acidity and nuances of colour.” She cites two signature colourful and aromatic dishes: beetroot with Blue Mountain coffee and carrot with a delicate jelly of orange blossom. At her new restaurant La Dame de Pic, in Paris, Pic has worked with perfumier Philippe Bousseton of Takasago to create fragrances “that capture the flavours and emotions on an olfactory level before the taste that inspire my menu – saffron, citrus and undergrowth spices – so that guests can better understand how I create dishes. I think this approach is very feminine. I have to say female customers are especially receptive.”

What does seem to hold true still is that most women rely less on technical wizardry in the kitchen. As Santini says: “What’s critical to me is the balance between innovation and tradition. How I can modernise dishes, but with no gimmicks and an emphasis on wholesomeness. I do think men do more invention. Most of all I want to give happiness to my customers. This definitely makes my approach more feminine.”

Anna Hansen concurs. “My food is definitely not gadget-driven. Sure, I do now have a thermomix, great for whipping up ice-cream, but I don’t feel any pressure to enhance my cooking with technical experimentation. I think perhaps women tend to be less competitive in this way. My emphasis is more on a willingness to be bold in exploring different flavours, yet keeping ingredients recognisable.”

Hélène Darroze, who holds two Michelin stars at her restaurants in Paris and London, has a distinctive take. “Even at the highest level of gastronomy, it is more about conveying intense emotion; giving of myself through my dishes, than technical posturing. It’s a question of sensibility. We definitely do feel different things to men and that comes across in my dishes. I believe we’re especially generous in what we give of ourselves. I consider it a female trait that we cook more instinctively and only consider how we can best harness technique secondarily. I am working on a dish around langoustine. I want to capture something of the flavour and scents of Hanoi that captures a particular time in my life when I was adopting my children. There will be lots of perfume – lemongrass and coriander in the dish and spice, too.”

Tellingly, when Nadia Santini talks of Angela Harnett’s style, she rhapsodises: “All the tastes of Angela’s cooking arrive to the heart. It is very much in harmony.” On balance, it seems that most female chefs do recognise subtle nuances that set their approach apart, yet ultimately it is about being true to expressing their individual culinary soul.

Really there shouldn’t be a divide. The prize surely simply acknowledges that while restaurants and awards remain male-dominated and female chefs are not lauded as often and effusively, surely the more awards the better that have a positive greenhouse effect in highlighting the deserved recognition of the world’s top women chefs. Yet, as Santini concludes: “Ultimately, we are all cooks and have the same objective: to create a unique and unforgettable dining experience for our guests.”