Gender Equality Isn't On The Menu
Female chefs and the irony of the imposter syndrome in a kitchen
Words by Pelin Keskin
Women have unparalleled experience with food. This is a historical fact. Yes, our gender norms have dictated that we should be kitchen dwellers, so the fact that we are better at something we are experienced with is a given. The raw, natural power of feeding offspring from breastmilk aside, we have inspired famous chefs, changed cuisines, written and distributed recipes that have dictated culinary genius. We were told we are nurturers, and nurture we have. We have strengthened the bond between psychology and food, and we have ensured that the human race stays strong, happy and healthy for generations.
But when economic benefit was put into the equation, magically a man appeared and put on an apron. That bond between psychology and food became instrumental in strengthening the previously tentative bond between food and profit. If we go with Rousseau, “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society”. Well, shit. In which case “Beware of listening to this imposter”.
There is a distinct differentiation between those that prepare food for their family and those that prepare food for economic gain. This differentiation first started thanks to our good friend Class. In France, the aristocracy could afford to have staff designated to the kitchen. They were too rich to cook their own food so they hired someone to cook, then they were too rich to go get their food for them so they hired servants and the larger their grounds became, the larger these kitchen teams became.The ratio of male to women in these kitchens is unknown. There is little information. However, once the French Revolution came crashing down, the aristocracy could not afford to keep their in-house staff. Cooks, chefs, servants, waiters and the like fled and the birth of widespread restaurants serving fine dining came about. By the time 1804 hit, there were about 500 restaurants. Due to the competition, many had to try different and new things and the first celebrity chef, Marie Antoine Careme surfaced. The reason why he became so famous is because the poor guy couldn’t become an architect so he decided to do the next best thing; make small buildings out of food. Now, this culture of famous chefs being male began and pretty much carried on. But this is indicative of the traditional patriarchal norms of that time more than anything.
Fast forward to 2015 and we still have renowned female chefs like Margot Henderson asking where all the female chefs are. Patriarchy in Western society is comically funny, but to some significant extent, it’s smart and calculated. I’m talking about the way the concept of masculinity was bolstered and used as a weapon more convincing than a gun to the head to force men to march into wars. This is why violence is inherently masculine. It’s inescapable and formidable. This kind of a strength has the capability to seep into everyday life. Kitchens have become male spaces and so they have their own rules that are designed to leave out women the same way we were left out of combat.
The way in which a kitchen power structure is like a military rank and file, with the head chef barking orders, instead of “SIR YES SIR” it’s “YES CHEF”, everyone wearing a uniform, with an almost frontline mentality of chaos happening at all times. Oh, we’re not in Kansas anymore. No one over here making emasculating jokes because this is different. This is a male space, whereas a home kitchen is a female space. Their perception of manhood isn’t undermined in the former, but is in the latter. In a restaurant kitchen, you fuck up an order and the whole thing is a mess, so everyone feels important and no one wants to let their Chef or their colleagues down. That kind of responsibility - letting your brothers and your father figure down - plays right into the psychology that was cultivated at wartime. Back then it was a matter of life and death. But that level of self-importance borne out of masculinity spilled over into every day life, and is so potent that it is dismissive to any female skill and participation. This is why we listen to men more, we interrupt women when they talk, we fund male team sports into the billions, and we ridicule female-dominant industries such as make-up. For fuck’s sake, we still need to say “female chef”.
It doesn’t end with the gratuity of skill. With restaurant kitchens, as with team sports, and any uniformed profession, the reward of sex and female attention is so much of a major perk that it is assumed to be a right. So we have the prevalence of rape and sexual assault. I think it can be agreed that, male and female alike, we all find the ability to cook attractive. The difference is the implications that are reserved for each gender. Men cook and are considered sexy, women cook and are considered wifey. Much like learning a language, one suggests the ability to acquire a skill, the other suggests a commitment to their maternal gender norms. So, in addition to earning the respect of their kitchen comrade brothers and the pride of their Chef Dad, they also get female attention that they believe they deserve. This is apparent when you consider the amount of harassment that women encounter in the restaurant industry from their coworkers (74%). The fact that Henderson talks of men treating food like something they need to dominate comes as no surprise (shout out Jenny Holzer). The concept of domination and subordination is to be expected when it is bound so tightly into the war theory that birthed the structured strength of patriarchal psychology.
This is the spillover effect.
And this isn’t just in the archaic, classist world of fine dining. You read a Times article talking about the “Gods of Food” (key word: Gods) and they’re all men. You walk into any trendy food establishment and the kitchen crew is wholly male. You open up Netflix to watch ‘Chef’s Table’ and there’s one woman for the whole series. Films about cooking like Chef and Burnt feature white men just trying to prove themselves, and so by extension their manhood, by rebelling against the stuffy culinary world. Vice Munchies’ Youtube channel is inundated by men. But this isn’t just because the world thinks men are better at cooking. There’s a difference; I say homemade you think menopausal chubby woman, I say chef you think middle aged white man with tousled hair. It’s all about the label and the perception. Even famous female chefs like Rachel Ray and Nigella Lawson dress like the sexy attentive wife. Their settings are in a home kitchen more than the stripped, cold laboratory style interior of a restaurant kitchen. But this is the best way they can make their millions. They appeal to wives and older women who can be found in the female space of a home kitchen. Their business model may work for male chefs like Jamie Oliver (because men are rewarded for refuting gender norms) whereas the male chef business model wouldn’t work for them (because women are economically punished for refuting gender norms). How long do you think it would take for a network to pull a show about a female chef swearing and insulting those at a lower calibre of skill than her? Joke! It wouldn’t even air.
Allow me to hold up a mirror to our generation, too. Despite our liberal attitude, you will never catch ‘millennials' watching Rachel Ray’s Youtube video of how to cook a Sunday roast. But they will watch a 30 minute video of David Chang roasting chicken in a petri dish and putting it in a steam room for 30 hours while he slurps a bowl of air flavoured udon. We would watch Action fucking Bronson eat a platter of tater tots before we ever watch Rachel Ray, but let's save the conversation of how bro culture has dominated 'coolness' for another time.
The issue is that things stay the same despite women having more of a control of the economic success of these chefs and establishments. Before it was rich men supporting other men. Now we make our own money that we spend our own way in the restaurants that we want to and like it or not we put it in the pockets of men.
Even if our credit is overlooked, you cannot deny that we are, at the very least, consumers. As long as men ask us “where you wanna go to eat”, as long as female solidarity exists and books out your table for 10’s, your career will rely on us. Just like a track doesn’t go to platinum unless we’re the ones getting up to dance in the club, a restaurant doesn’t succeed unless we go there. We all gotta eat, literally and financially - so stop leaving women out of the latter.
I’ve had many responses to this, over the years, with various other (see: every) spaces that men have monopolised. Whether it’s the WNBA or Silicon Valley, women are told to buy the tickets, start the tech companies, fund our own restaurants and that it’s up to us to figure out if we love to complain so much. No. We didn’t break it for ourselves so it is not up to us to fix it. The way monopolisation works is so that, no matter how hard we try, we still can’t do it by ourselves. We can't hire ourselves. We can't give ourselves promotions. Men have to cover at least their half of the bill on this.
There is an increasing number or women graduating from culinary school so there really is no excuse for your kitchens to still be a squad of bros lead by Dad Bro. Make your spaces safer for women, hire them and let them work their way up to be the father figures you don't want to disappoint.