When a glossy city magazine puts out the annual list of best restaurants, the issue is promptly snapped up by people in the industry and by the food cognoscenti, who gobble down the contents faster than they do the charcuterie plate at La Belle Vie.

But when the March issue of Mpls.St.Paul magazine came out, there was an audible gasp because of the photo of the chefs who represented the top Twin Cities restaurants. Some foodies reacted as if Old Country Buffet had made the list.

No. It was worse. All 15 chefs pictured, representing the 12 "best" restaurants, were dudes. Perhaps the only thing more jarring was their abnormal affinity for plaid.

Readers wrote to Stephanie March, the magazine's food and dining editor, in anger. They saw the photo as an affront to the many talented women working in creative kitchens around town, and they saw it as a confirmation that few of them get the recognition they deserve.

Inside, the magazine actually celebrated the top 50 restaurants, as judged by four staff members, two men and two women. The choices spanned a range of cooking styles and ethnic options. There was even a long, glowing profile of Lucia Watson, former owner of Lucia's.

But no mention of Watson on the cover. No mention that the 15 stud muffins were gracing the cover because of their restaurants. Only: "We gathered some of our top local chefs for the cover shot."

By Monday, 22 female chefs and restaurant owners had met to plan a letter to reporters, criticizing the cover photo decision.

"We're outraged at the viewpoint taken by the cover and subsequent editorial comments on the March issue of Mpls.St.Paul magazine depicting the best chefs of the Twin Cities as all male," they wrote. "It's a false and embarrassing representation of our diverse food community. Did anybody notice that your mothers, wives and sisters weren't in the room?"

March didn't get the anger. The female chefs didn't get why March didn't get it.

The assignment for the cover shot, it turns out, guided the process, March explained on her blog. "Among the 50, pick the top 12 restaurants. If you have to pick the 12 best for a picture, who would you choose? Now, which female would you swap for which male, because there are only 12 spots?"

None, she argued. "Quite honestly, isn't the 'token' metric just as offensive as a blind eye?"

In an interview Friday, March said the photo was initially slotted to run inside, along with an article of the "cream of the crop" of innovative restaurants. But instead of, say, a photo of a beautiful dish from one of the restaurants, or better yet — a diversity-satisfying shot from among the top 50 — the man-chef photo got moved to the cover, making the magazine look more like GQ.

One woman was so angry she drunk-called insults to March at 2 a.m. Man, there are days I wished I worked in this crazy restaurant business.

"I get the sensitivity to that cover," said March. "To me, it's disappointing that it takes away from the stories inside" that are much more representative of the community. Suddenly it doesn't matter to these women, who are in the story inside. So it means somehow that the words don't matter."

March doesn't back away from the staff's belief that the restaurants chosen are indeed the best in the cities. They all happen to be headed by men.

Kim Bartmann, owner of eight restaurants and one of the women who signed the letter, said maybe food critics need to think more about what "best" means. "Does it mean only new American-style restaurants or ones where they use tweezers to plate every single dish?"

After the issue came out, about 35 women in the restaurant industry got together at Bartmann's the Third Bird to discuss how to respond to "covergate." The letter came out of that meeting.

Bartmann acknowledged that the content inside the magazine was good, but she wants someone to admit the photo was a bad choice. She said the cover set the tone for the article and implied that men are the only ones doing quality work, "and that's a conscious choice," she said. "I just wish someone would admit they made a mistake."

Two of Bartmann's head chefs are women, and she ticked off a list of names of other women who should be counted among the city's best.

Timing wasn't in the magazine's favor for diversity. Everyone agrees Jamie Malone, formerly of Sea Change, could have made the photo, but she's planning to open a new place later this year. Watson recently sold her restaurant, so March felt they couldn't include her on the cover.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, a food critic at the magazine, was likewise unapologetic that the top 12 restaurants chosen were all run by men. "It wasn't about the best food, the best chefs, it was about the best restaurants," said Grumdahl. "Do I think Lisa Carlson [Chef Shack] has one of the best ten restaurants in town? Absolutely not."

Other industry women who are considered at the top of their game, such as Michelle Gayer of Salty Tart, weren't included "because there's a distinct difference between a restaurant and a bakery," Grumdahl said. "The executive chef for the Wedge? That's not a restaurant. She's not going to make our issue of top doctors, either."

Brenda Langton of Spoonriver said the prominence of the photo struck a nerve.

"It's a very familiar thing for women in the restaurant business," she said. "But it's bigger than that — it's in politics, sports, religion. I'm not saying I should have been in that photo. Someone could have just said, 'This doesn't look right.' They could have said they made a mistake instead of being defensive."

But Langton said the gathering at the Third Bird with other women in the business was uplifting and motivating.

"We're not done with this," she said. "We're going to continue to meet and try to make changes for the good."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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