Some woes of orientalism and the lack of female representation in fine dining

Meena
Meena
Sep 6 · 7 min read

Today we are going to chat a bit more casually about a somewhat political as well as social topic. Unlike our usual format of structured arguments and basis on literary content, we will be venturing into social commentary — which honestly, never hurt anyone. Besides, inspiration hit the fan today for me, which has not been the case throughout the month of August — as you’ve probably noticed with our lack of uploads throughout that month. It is unfortunate, but sometimes writing just has to flow from you for people to be interested, no use forcing something that doesn’t come out from deep inside you.

The other day, I was watching a show called The Final Table. Any people out there that have watched it? Comment below on your thoughts! For those that have not, it is a cooking competition show on Netflix that involves teams of two that cook dishes together for what is a place in the final table of famous world renowned chefs. In the last episode, the teams disperse into individuals and cook against the last remaining. For those wondering, yes I am quite obsessed with cooking shows on Netflix, and I’ve probably watched them all. I have never been that keen on baking shows, perhaps because of my Asian background, however when it comes to cooking I find it strangely fascinating to watch people plate things in the most absurd ways and call it a form of art. I would say I am somewhere between admiration and disbelief that this is something that exists in our contemporary world.

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Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

Moving on with my personal anecdote, as I was watching the show, I could not help but notice one of the individuals among the many competing, Canadian Chef Darren MacLean. He was definitely a talented chef like many others on the show, however there was just something about him that made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Now, this is not a type of discomfort that I feel only from this particular chef, it is something that I feel quite often watching other forms of entertainment or interacting with people on a daily. It is that itching feeling where you just feel like you need to squint your eyes in discomfort. An easy way to explain that feeling of discomfort is through the idea of orientalism. For those unfamiliar with the term orientalism, it comes from, on a base level the idea of the occident and the orient, essentially the idea of the West and the rest. The West has for the longest time seen itself as the centre of the world in virtue of the rest existing — hence the existence of these two words in opposition. Another way of interpreting orientalism is also the idea of fetishising yet also barbarising whatever exists outside of the Western sphere. A typical example of this type of mentality (stereotypical duality) is the idea of the ‘noble’ vs. the ‘ignoble savage’. Let me clarify this concept through my personal anecdote about watching The Final Table.

What made me uncomfortable about Chef MacLean had nothing to do with his level of skill. He was clearly a professional that was good at what he was doing, something that was quite apparent, as he made it quite far into the competition. The question however that kept coming to my mind, was ‘why is he so obsessed with Japanese food?’ And, ‘why does he keep speaking about his experience in terms of the struggles he has gone through as a white man?’ For those that have not watched the show, yes, he constantly chats about how he found his way of cooking and way of life through Japanese cuisine (as the caucasian Canadian man that he is) and how he always struggles with the Japanese looking down on him or underestimating his cooking skills because he is a hakujin (and yes, he keeps using that word) — i.e. a white man.

I get it, it must be tough to be spoken to in a way that makes you doubt your skills, your ability to do what you’ve spent your entire life doing. However, why do you feel so strangely entitled to this feeling of recognition? Especially from people that have an actual cultural background in what they’ve been doing? Do you not ask yourself the question of whether you’re taking the place of another POC that could be making it big, that has that background and upbringing without the privilege of throwing themselves into their dream job? How about seeing your own culture and country as a playing field for your innovation and success, as opposed to others’?

The Final Table features many judge chefs that are world-famous, some have even been documented in the well-loved Netflix show, Chef’s Table (e.g. Grant Achatz, Enrique Olvera). Those chefs are well-known for what they do because they work with something they have naturally grown up with. They see cooking as a cultural force, a vision of their identity, and some even further attempt to improve their country’s livelihood by putting their country’s cuisines on the map. You hear even of chefs that are French trained and have experienced the joys of European cuisine, and yet somehow realise with time the importance of the roots they come from — the importance of seeing the beauty in their local cuisines and ingredients, not just that of the luxurious European cuisines people are taught to idolise. Authenticity here, seems to be key. One can borrow skills, knowledge and love of another country’s cuisines and see the beautiful links it may have with their own. However, ultimately the importance of authenticity rings true. Cooking comes from the heart and soul not only from the mind and experience — as we all probably have experienced with family cooking, especially if you come from a POC family.

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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Going back to Chef MacLean, I found his obsession with Japanese cuisine bizarre and unrelatable. The number of white men I have met in my life that tell me about their bizarre fascination with Japan and other times Korea, has always given me a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. Fetishisation is the immediate idea that comes to my mind, as well as sometimes an awkward mix of cultural appropriation and mansplaining tendencies these types of individuals tend to exhibit. I get it, you’ve probably been to Japan more often that I have and you probably know more about Japanese cuisine than I ever will. The picture however painted of the caucasian white man explaining an Asian culture (a culture that isn’t his own) to me but also even worse, to other Japanese people just makes me feel really strange. This isn’t singular to cooking: I have had this experience in academia, in travel, in language… The patterns always seem to be there. Knowledge comes also from privilege, especially if you are able to gain knowledge about something beyond your own upbringing and background.

This of course, brings up the question that many caucasians ask: how can I be a specialist in something (that does not stem from my background and upbringing) without being overbearing to POC that may more directly be involved in what I speak of? I personally find the answer simple. Ask yourself the right questions. Give the respect that needs to be given. Don’t overstep your boundaries. The answers always ring the same with these issues and yet nothing ever seems to change — which is really a pity.

Changing the topic slightly, the show also truly emphasised the lack of female presence in fine dining, which in itself is an important topic of conversation. Women have always been primary caregivers at home throughout the entire history of humanity, and have always been at the centre of providing food and nutrition at home. The idea of ‘mom’s cooking’ or ‘grandma’s kitchen’ is a common nostalgic feeling that anyone can feel because of this long history of women being forced to become one with the kitchen. Why is it then, that in fine dining, the arena for really making it big and making cooking a big-name job, the arena where one can become creative and think beyond traditional boundaries — that there are an overwhelming majority of men?

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Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

Gender theorists and academics have long researched career patterns between women and men, how certain careers become less valued and immediately correlate with a lower pay when the sector becomes ‘feminised’. Certain examples include teaching, jobs that were considered valuable and important a century ago when it was exclusively men in the field. The question remains whether all these numbers are a simple reflection of the reactions to the increase in the numbers of people in these careers, hence salaries decreasing in effect (a fact of numbers) — however lots of other researchers and the evidence they provide suggests that that version of the story is skewed. Unconscious discrimination still remains a strong contender in the attempt to explain the numbers. We cannot consider the gender pay gap solely vertically (e.g. in terms of positions within a company), we must visualise it horizontally as well (across jobs, sectors that are considered ‘feminised’ and ‘masculinsed’) to truly get the real picture painted. Not to mention actually start considering domestic work as work should be paid even though it isn’t, and see it as an equally important position in our society, as domestic labour is just as laborious as jobs in the public sphere. It is the invisible labour that we do not consider as important in spite of it being the reason for the success of the next generations as well as the partner that goes out to earn money.

There is a desperate need for us to change the way we view and interact with the world — considering the questions of when and why have somewhat been answered, the how is the next main question that comes to mind at this very moment.

Food for thought,

Meena.

Originally published at https://talking-egg.com on September 6, 2020.

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