Feminoshing: Why are most chefs male?

Author’s Note: This essay originally ran in Sirens magazine (later Sexy Feminist) in 2009. The site is no longer with us, so I am reprinting it here.

If we, as women, are destined by our biology to be in charge of the home kitchen, why are there so few of us in charge of the restaurant kitchen?

A woman’s place, the old saying goes, is in the kitchen.

I would comfortably bet you that, in the majority of heterosexual households in this country, indeed, all over the world, the women are usually the ones producing the meals. After all, nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven, and cooking is the way to a man’s heart.

Even in 2009, a wife who doesn’t cook for her husband is looked at askance; a mother who doesn’t cook, or at least dish up healthy meals for her husband and children is an abomination. ‘Cause cooking is, you know, a woman’s thing. It’s in our genes. As the gatherers, we have evolved to wait for our hunting men to bring the dead mammoth back to the cave so we can lovingly roast it for our family.

It is our biological role to nurture, and the most central way we can nurture (other than cleaning after everyone else) is by cooking. The men, by that same argument, cannot possibly fulfill that role; their evolutionary path is quite different. Or is it?

Take one look at the restaurant industry, and things are very different. Men outnumber women vastly; different sources (and no, I cannot call them absolute) pin it at 10 to 1.

So what is the story? How is it that these hunters have suddenly turned into gatherers? Don’t they know they are going against the rules of basic evolutionary psychology? Ah, but you see, these rules apparently don’t apply to professional cooking.

Master chef Fernand Point, who is credited with revitalizing French cuisine in the early 20th century, and with fostering the careers of other culinary giants like Paul Bocuse, put it the most bluntly:

“Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art,” he once said when asked why there were no women in his kitchen.

In other words, at least according to Point, women are incapable of elevating cooking to an art. It’s funny, but that sounds suspiciously like the same argument used to keep women out of the art world, academia, pretty much everywhere. Female brains simply aren’t that sophisticated, little girl, so why don’t you go home and play with your toys!

Most offensively, it also negates centuries of cooking by women. Can we honestly contend that all culinary artistry was accomplished by the men who went against their biological destinies? Now, Fernand Point made that statement in 1950, and the ‘50s were a time of backlash against the strides women made during World War II.

As Euan Ferguson put it in a feature in the Observer, dated March 25, 2007:
“From the Fifties on, French cuisine sank back into a stew brimming with machismo. Women rolled up brusque sleeves and washed slopping pots, or dressed beautifully and ate the stuff daintily out front, but within the world of French chefs de cuisine, the so-called ‘perpetually moustached’ kitchens, four unprecedented decades of growing emancipation were brushed aside while the real men sweated with the heavy knives, and the brimming stock-pans; and the rosettes, the headlines.”

And the influence of men like Point and their rules on who can and cannot produce elevated cuisine is still felt today in restaurant kitchens all over the world.

Jezebel’s Sadie Stein wrote a story last year on the subject of sexism in the restaurant kitchen. A number of professional cooks, some chefs, some not, responded:

“I went to culinary school and worked in the industry, and the sexism is so rampant as to be unbelievable,” said one commentator. “I was once told at a job interview, ‘We don’t have any women in the kitchen. How about we put you on wait staff instead?’ I was interviewing to be a sous chef.”

“I’m a CIA {Culinary Institute of America} grad who cooked professionally for a few years, and I totally agree with you,” wrote another, replying to the first. “Even at school, the sexism was amazing because it was so matter-of-fact: I had professors who told my class that women are better at pastry because they have cold hands, that women are better ‘food stylists’ because they care more about color, that male chefs like food to be challenging, but female chefs just want to feed people. Out in the industry, it was more brutal — if you couldn’t laugh at rape jokes, you were an uptight bitch. I had four or five close female friends from my CIA days, and like me, none of them are still cooking professionally.”

New York magazine also tackled the subject, asking female chefs about sexism in the industry, and whether that was why there were so few women running restaurant kitchens, this time in New York City.

“It’s worth noting that almost to a woman, the chefs we spoke to were at first reluctant to cite sexism as the reason there aren’t more women among the city’s elite chefs,” the editors wrote in the introduction. “In part, it seemed, they didn’t want to play the victim or be labeled whiny; in part, they didn’t want to believe it — the better to not let it stop them. ‘There are also a lot of men who can’t hack it in the kitchen,’ was a common sentiment. But the more the women talked, the more it became clear that gender bias is still an issue. Not that they don’t embrace a stereotype or two themselves. The one thing the group agreed women do better than men? … Clean.”

A few choice quotes from the chefs:

“It’s the boys’ club,” said Rebecca Charles of the Pearl Oyster Bar. “It’s incredible, and I never used to buy into stuff like that.”

“I didn’t want the fact that I was a woman to be an issue, so I just put my head down and cooked and did the best that I could,” said April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig. “I moved to wherever I was able to move. And one day, some guys came in and shook everyone’s hands, and I held out my hand and this guy just walked straight past me. It’s like, ‘Okay, fuck you. I’m gonna be better than you one day.’”

The comments from chefs still working in the industry on Jezebel also had a “you’re not going to beat me down” attitude.

“The last kitchen I worked in had three other talented female cooks working the line — banging food out with the best of ‘em — with nothing but respect coming from male cooks because the ladies kicked ass,” wrote one poster. “Sisters be doing it, yo.”

Indeed. The Observer article I quoted earlier was actually about Chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who was awarded three stars by the Michelin guide in 2007. She was the first woman to be honored in such a fashion in 56 years.
And this year’s Michelin UK guide gave stars to 10 female chefs. That is four more than the previous year.

Sister chefs are doing it for themselves.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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