Female Chefs and Molecular Gastronomy – Why don’t we call them “Male Chefs?”

I was waiting for this. Finally, someone is hitting it dead on. The adulation of chefs, their celebrity and such has done little to shed light on the gender imbalance in the field. As culinary innovators gather in Spain some wonder where the girls are.

As usual, calls it like it is when he notes that few women will tolerate or survive the testosterone battlefield of a professional kitchen. When one does, she gets the nickname “The Grill Bitch.” Which, of course, he means in the nicest, gender-non-specific way, I’m sure.

I have been shocked to see how little progress in gender equality we have made in professional restaurants and kitchens. As with most any field, you see mostly men in the highest paid positions and few women. I’d be curious about the gender distribution at culinary schools versus at top kitchens. Like major consulting firms, law firms and accounting firms, just to name a few, I’d bet you’d see more equal numbers at entry level, then a precipitous drop as you move up the pipeline.

I’m most disappointed in how little change has occurred since I entered the workforce. Men at the tops (and bottoms) of so many places still seem to assume that men occupy the best paid positions because they are the best. They tend not to notice that it’s the male boss who gives that one female server the worst station or the worst customers consistently. Ensuring she, unlike her male peers, gets the least chance at developing high-paying clients and great tips. They never question who’s making these calls.

Our reverence for science and gadgets
In an interesting piece the NYTimes observes the relative absence of women on the forefront of this new trend of molecular gastronomy. The debate is nearly reduced (in this article) to why girls don’t like science.

Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that girls actually do well at and enjoy science and math – in about the same numbers as boys – until puberty. Mysteriously, they become more interested in not competing with boys, not appearing too smart, and soon, they nearly vanish from the fields. One has only to look at recent controversies at backwater institutions like, say Harvard, to note that guys on top still think girls cannot, or should not, compete in fields like science.

Getting back to restaurants and grill bitches…
I would say that few women have probably enjoyed enough success in this field to get to the point that they can be as devoted to something so extreme. I believe El Bulli is only open 6 months of the year. One doesn’t do that in the restaurant business if one is concerned about turning enough tables to make rent and pay back the investors.

I think there’s also something about the competitive nature of men who succeed in these skewed systems. They (the guys, I mean) emulated the guys at the top when they began the climb. That behavior was what they continued to get rewarded for. That is what they began to respect as the model of success in the field.

Let’s take a look at restaurant kitchens. (I don’t see a lot of men commanding respect of other men for taking over the home kitchen.) Assume a new trend is started. The more provocative this trend, the better. The guys at the top of the media, the restaurant world, the culinary world all notice. “Whoa…dude, that’s cool.” And the competition begins. He did architectural food and got noticed by the guy at the New York Times? I’ll make mine taller.

If there are women around, if they are willing to play by those rules, they may earn some respect. Chances are they’re not there in the first place. As one chef put it, she just wasn’t that interested in churning out that kind of food.

Some of the chefs interviewed put “feeding people” in opposition to trend-setting food techniques. I see no reason why it has to be an either-or equation.

I do think it’s interesting to consider whether, if women chefs started a trend, men would applaud it and begin to emulate it. Just imagine Gordon Ramsay trying to out-do Lidia Bastianich at something. Is he working overtime to top Teresa Berrenechea at paella?

Do you suppose he pays attention to what the girls are doing? Would Battali or Ripert, or Boulud, pick anyone…do these guys follow what their few female counterparts are doing and try to emulate it or surpass it? I’ll bet they largely ignore what women in their field are doing. Why? Because they can. It is of no consequence to them. Unless or until there is another outside honor bestowed, or star earned by the female chef, they will not probably notice. God forbid, she gets a star before you do.

Some girls just won’t play that game
Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of acclaimed East Village restaurant Prune, is quoted in the NYTimes piece on another aspect of this issue: “Historically, when women move into men’s work it loses value,” she said. “Maybe we’ll see the pay drop, and the science suddenly getting called ‘soft.’ I’ll say this: If you see me doing foams at Prune, you’ll know the whole thing has gone down the tube.”

I love her attitude and, in the main, I think she’s correct. Look at grade school teachers: mostly female, poorly paid as compared to entry level corporate jobs. There was a time when that profession was male dominated, enjoyed more respect and was much better compensated. Many other examples exist, but the question, I think, is not whether female chefs will begin to play with new gadget-driven methods to compete with the male molecular gastronomists. It’s not whether science attracts or deters female chefs to that trend.

She who frames the question wins
This was the lesson on the first day of my Constitutional Law class. I have found the maxim to hold true in many contexts, including this one. I believe the question to ask is: who is awarding the laurel wreaths or Michelin stars to whom. Who is deciding which chefs get the financing? Who decides what makes a given restaurant proposal or other project bid more appealing?

As long as women and men don’t share in the power of defining what is hot, bold, cutting-edge in any given field, those markers of achievement will continue to be defined by the qualities that reflect the gender of the people bestowing the accolades, and their baggage. One might say we can’t help it, it’s our nature. I’ve seldom seen power decide, of its own accord, that it needs to be shared more evenly.

Surely, there are women drawn to gadgets and science. But how many of them are given a shot in a kitchen like Stupak’s or Dufresne’s to experiment with no disproportionate consequence? Certainly few enough that people in the article mention it as an anomaly.

I’ve seen female business leaders applaud male employees who simply parrot the suggestion of a female employee who said the same thing five minutes earlier. I’ve seen highly successful professional women curry favor of junior men to the exclusion of equally able women. I’ve seen men in kitchens or boardrooms completely ignore or marginalize women.

Highest honors
And then, occasionally, if we have the balls to hang in there with the boys and prove what we’re made of: we get the accolade, a moniker like “The Grill Bitch.”

The day a man calls another man that type of name – means it as a complimentand the guy takes it as such – THAT is the day we can stop having these annoying and depressing conversations. Then we can simply be chefs, not “female chefs” (as opposed to the assumed norm: male) “chefs”.

Then we can turn out good food, molecular or not, side by side with the bitch. And I mean that in the most respectful and gender-non-specific way.

~ by jacqueline1230 on March 13, 2007.

2 Responses to “Female Chefs and Molecular Gastronomy – Why don’t we call them “Male Chefs?””

  1. Knowing that the public buys into the “man is superior in the kitchen” bull doesn’t help. The vanishing of real chefs and real cooking on the Food Channel has brought to the popular fore women who say things like (I don’t recall who this was) “Here’s how to make my fabulous peach salsa … first, go out and buy your favorite salsa …”. And don’t get me started on Rachel Ray. We tolerate women in the TV kitchen if they’re cute, sexy or sassy. How about ones who can cook? I know they exist! We should be venerating chefs like Melissa Kelly or Mary Contini, who are environmentally and nutritionally dedicated, run tight restaurants, and can cook rings around the kitchen babes on TV. Good thing they seem to have taken over the ghetto of book publishing, or the larger audience would never be exposed to an alternative.

  2. Joseph – thanks for stopping by. If the instructions began with “buy your favorite..” I’m guessing it was that imposter, Sandra Lee. I really hate the way the Food Network has devolved into a formulaic, lowest common denominator venue. Real and informative shows are gone. Kevin Brauch, Mario Battali, just to name a few.

    Anyway, I do believe there are women doing great things out there, we just don’t get to hear too much about them. Thanks for the info.
    -Jacqueline

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