Chef's Table also inspired me to try making fresh pasta

Ground Rules for the Girl Chef

From July 12, 2016

Last night, I watched the first episode of the Netflix original series, “Chef’s Table.” The show follows world class chefs through their days while illustrating, through interviews and old photos, the journey that led to culinary fame.

The first hour-long documentary in the series profiles Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Bottura is eccentric, brilliant, provocative – all the things a visionary chef should be. But one aspect of his story struck me as odd, over and over through decades of cooking: the difference between Massimo and the Italian women in his stories. First, there was his grandmother, whose kitchen table Massimo hid under as a child, stealing raw tortellini that inspired his (in)famous “Tortellini Walking On Broth” dish. Then, there was Lidia, the pasta chef with failing eyesight who taught Massimo everything he knows about traditional pasta-making, whose knowledge led Massimo to a job offer from world renowned French chef Alain Ducasse. Throughout, there was the mythical nonna of the traditional Italian kitchen, that is to say, the kitchen in the home.

These obvious gender stereotypes rankled. Why is it that girls that grow up in the kitchen become housewives, but boys that grow up sprinkled with flour, licking spoons of batter, become world famous restaurateurs?  Is this even a fair characterization of the culinary arts or am I just extrapolating from anecdotal evidence coupled with personal experience?

To address these questions, I’ll cover some relevant statistics on sexism in the restaurant industry, as well as touch upon the broader topic of gender and food. Next, I’ll describe my cooking experience as it relates to gender. Then, I’ll put together some personal ground rules for fighting the persistent tug of sexism in the kitchen.

Meat Cleaver to the Glass Ceiling

Through the media, it seems like great chefs are guys and home cooks (including TV personalities targeting home cooks) are girls. I’m looking at you, Rachel Ray, Nigella Lawson, and (that grand-dame of domesticity) Martha Stewart. Same goes for the internet-famous food bloggers like Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) and Deb Perelman (of Smitten Kitchen). Ladies cook for their families (to varying degrees of public recognition) and gentlemen cook for critics.

I know what you’re thinking (or at least what I’m thinking): Girl, you live in Chicago. Stephanie Izard should punch you in the face. There are certainly great female chefs, but it seemed to me like they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

I was excited to learn while researching this essay that things are changing in the restaurant industry. The old guard is being phased out. The boys’ club has been exposed and infiltrated. Women have achieved near-parity representation in culinary schools (and not just in the so-called “pink ghetto” of pastry programs with more flexible work hours) These highly trained women are now executive sous-chefs and chefs de cuisine at the world’s best restaurants, ripe for an industry-wide takeover.

But perceptions are changing slowly due to systemic issues:

  1. Well qualified women are less likely to receive funding from investors to start their own restaurants. Only 33% of restaurants are majority-owned by women (though that number is trending upwards and women-owned restaurants are driving growth in the industry).
  2. Women are still underrepresented in top positions in the kitchen: only 19% of head chefs in the hospitality industry are female. This disparity gets worse higher up the food chain (pun intended) with only 1% of three-Michelin-star restaurants boasting a female head chef.
  3. The gender pay gap for chefs is one of the largest across industries.
  4. Female chefs do not receive fair coverage in the media and the associated benefits. (Only 13% of James Beard Foundation awards have gone to women. See Amanda Cohen’s brutal take-down of this trend.)
  5. Top female chefs don’t want to talk about gender issues even if they exist – they want to talk about and be recognized for their food.

The times they are a-changin, folks. You’re not going to find a pompous misogynist in a tall white hat declaring, “Women cannot be chefs!” in a heavy French accent (at least not at elite US eateries). You’re much more likely to find the cool-kids of modern cuisine gently insisting that anyone, man, woman or purple-people eater, can be head chef at a prestigious restaurant if they have the skills.

As in many fields, gender equality in restaurants seems to be just around the corner. But there’s construction on the sidewalk. You’ll have to go the long way around while strange guys wolf-whistle in your direction.

Do You Know the Muffin Man?

Though it’s nice to see progress towards equality in a creative and competitive field like culinary arts, gendered stereotypes about food don’t come from the top down, filtering from executive chefs to general audiences. It goes the other way around: public perception arises from a highly gender-segregated food culture.

Think of all the dumbass ideas thrown  around by advertisers 24/7: Meat and junk food  are for men; veggies and health food are for women. Guys are either macho hunters or lazy couch potatoes; women are domestic goddesses, perpetually looking for yogurt-based dessert substitutes and laughing at salads, or they are smiling grandmas baking pies for the little ones.

These clichés are so deeply ingrained that even top female chefs propagate personal theories about gendered differences in food preparation: “I think it’s ancient. I think it goes right back to the Stone Age. Women produce food; men provide food. In other words, we breast-fed while the men went out and hunted,” writes Margot Henderson of the Rochelle Canteen in David Chang’s food-centric Lucky Peach magazine. “Women’s food is, for the most part, more accessible, it’s easier to understand, it’s friendlier, it’s more comforting,” Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar told New York Magazine.

There is scientific evidence for some biological differences in taste. Women of reproductive age can detect smells at much lower concentrations than men, which will affect perception of flavor, and are more likely to be “super tasters” with higher sensitivity to sweetness and bitterness. But these are not the differences reflected in gendered stereotypes.

It’s men like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine who are the world’s most famous molecular gastronomists, breaking flavors down to the essential chemical components that (apparently) women are better at detecting anyway. On the other hand, it’s women like Lidia Bastianich and Paula Deen serving up carbs and butter, those rubber mallets of the culinary toolkit, to satisfy the hungriest of (lazy, helpless) husbands.

Surveys across countries suggest that differences in food preference are not biological, but societal. For example, it has been argued that women crave chocolate more than men because of hormones and their super-tasting tongues. But that preference only holds for women in the US. Young boys in England love sweets, and men in Spain claim to like chocolate just as much as the ladies do.

These social pressures also affect taste, as much or more than biology. Psychologists have shown that gendered stereotypes alter our enjoyment of food. In one study, test subjects thought muffins (feminine fare) in incongruent, macho packaging (adorned with football players) tasted worse than the same muffins in an appropriately girly wrapper (decorated with ballerinas). Admittedly, this is a highly convenient, small sample psycho-social finding that sounds almost too neat to be true.

In general, however, I contend that, despite a small but measurable biological difference in taste, profound and persistent gender stereotypes in food culture have a far greater affect on what men and women choose to eat and choose to cook. These biases propagate to the highest levels of culinary arts where men dominate the intellectual aspects of haute cuisine and women, by their own admission, make comfort food.

Sorry, kiddos, but the muffin man is a contradiction in terms. Men neither bake nor eat girly muffins. The man-formerly-known-for-muffins is now serving blueberry foam on a bed of raw oat flour for $50-a-spoonful somewhere in Manhattan.

Learning to Cook Selfishly

In my mind, “home” means the place where you are the host, where you warmly welcome loved ones, feed and comfort them, before sending them back into the scary world fortified by food, rest,and  affection. I learned this from my aunt, who hosted me in her home for many years. Her kitchen was the safe-zone at the center of my childhood.

As soon as Jay and I moved into our first apartment, I outfitted the kitchen. I bought a new set of stainless steel pans, baking sheets, table clothes, embroidered napkins and placeholders, plates and bowls to serve a party of 12, and the biggest set of silverware I could find at my local Target. I wanted to host 3-course dinners every other weekend.

When I wasn’t cooking for company, I was cooking for Jay. I wanted to make things he liked and I cared deeply what he thought of my efforts. I religiously avoided ingredients that he casually mentioned he didn’t care for. (We rarely ate onions for years because of this. Insane, I know.)

Here’s the thing about Jay though: he genuinely doesn’t care about food. Moreover, he harbors absolutely no expectations (conscious or unconscious) that I should cook for him. If I didn’t make dinner, he would just order pizza for both of us and keep doing whatever he was doing.

All of the gendered stereotypes I fell into were of my own making. I did all the grocery shopping, meal planning, budgeting, and cooking, not for fun but because it felt like my responsibility. I never cooked for myself: every meal had an audience, and the perfectionist in me badly needed to please that audience.

It wasn’t until we moved from our big apartment in LA to a much smaller space in Chicago that I started to bust out of those bad habits. Our new place is too cramped to have people over for dinner and, while Jay was going through a stressful career transition, we had neither the motivation nor the money to host parties. Then Jay went to San Francisco for a few months and I was, truly for the first time, cooking for myself in my own home.

This is when I learned to cook selfishly. With no one to feed and no one watching, I started spending hours in the kitchen alone, just for that first taste of finished product. I planned meals weeks in advance to make sure I had the right ingredients and tools. I started to formalize my culinary education, learning techniques, but also history and culture. I became fascinated with the idea of making as much as possible from scratch and followed that fascination. I’m still following that fascination. That’s where this blog came from.

Ground Rules for a Girl Chef

Though I’ve always claimed to love food and cooking (because it’s the cool thing to do in my demographic, see “domestic goddess” above), it took awhile for me to actually love cooking.

Looking back, I realize that I’ve acted out a lot of shitty gendered stereotypes in the last few years that are not in keeping with my values as a scientist, feminist, and utilitarian.

As a scientist, I reject the notion that women necessarily cook food of a certain type because of biological or evolutionary imperatives. Those arguments are little more than poorly disguised sexist tropes. Moreover, women should be perfectly capable gastronomists, just as they (we) are perfectly capable researchers in other fields. The shortage of women in the highest ranks of this field is, therefore, not a difference in innate ability between men and women, but systemic sexism.

As a feminist and utilitarian, I find the obvious and egregious gender-segregation of US food culture to be unhealthy, both physically and psychologically. As a society, we can’t tell guys to look like this while eating every juicy hamburger they encounter and maintaining a working knowledge of the local craft brew scene. And I vomit in my mouth a little every time my friends repost Instagram photos of supermodels in swimsuits eating fried chicken. #fitnessgoals #cheatmeal #pleasejustshootmeintheface

So, as an aspiring girl chef, these are my ground rules.

  • Know your shit. This applies to basically everything all the time. Knowledge is power and power is necessary to create change.
  • Learn everything from everyone. Whole hog butchering? I’m there. Urban hydroponics workshop? Sign me up.
  • Avoid ingredients and prepared foods that come in mass-produced packages. Packaging is a vehicle for exploitative marketing nonsense.
  • Shop for ingredients as close to the source as possible – farms, farmer’s markets, and certain local grocery stores that work directly with local farmers.
  • Set aside time to cook well. Prepare in advance. Be patient and meticulous in your execution. This is how you improve.
  • Be observant – sexism is everywhere – but don’t get hung up on it.
  • Be bold. Try recipes that might fail. When they fail, try again.

Above all else, cook selfishly, for the love of the process and the product. Give zero fucks what anyone else thinks or wants.

A few months ago, I embarked on a mini-food adventure to organize my thoughts on culinary topics, from books to restaurants and many recipes in-between. Though it was a useful exercise to give structure to my culinary curiosities, it didn’t look like there was going to be enough content to make that blog interesting, and it was taking attention away from this blog. 

So I decided to consolidate, moving my favorite content from the food blog to this space for safekeeping. This is the first of those migrating posts. -xoxo, A


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