Friday, September 17, 2010

What’s for dinner? Excitement and innovation . . . or comfort and love?

As the most recent season of Bravo’s Top Chef wrapped up its 7th season this week, I eagerly made my predictions with my fellow self-proclaiming foodie friends about who would win this time, amongst the three male finalists. Yes, all male finalists – and that’s usually the norm, too. Albeit, there have been seasons where there were two males and one female. But, of the six seasons that have passed so far, there has yet to be any more than one female winner to take home the title of Top Chef. The challenge in the finale episode brought back “sous chefs” or winners from past seasons to assist the three current contestants . . . and of course they were all male. These facts left me a little initially distraught, so I started to break them down under the social microscope.

A woman’s rightful place is in her kitchen - being the mom and nurturing homemaker. There is always something to be said about one’s mother’s home-cooking. These very cookie cutter, traditional views have been held in place for decades, if not centuries, now in this country. While modern-day views on the role of a man and woman at home have shifted and made leagues of progress, it’s still not that much of a stretch to say that the image of a woman in the kitchen is still slightly more the norm than the image of a man in the kitchen.

Professional women chefs, however, are not seen in abundance. While there are some who rank high up there in the culinary world and while it’s definitely not the case that female cooking skills are inferior to that of a man’s, is it the issue and struggle to balance one woman’s demanding career with her inherent desire to raise a family and devote more time to her children that’s the age old struggle that we are grappling with in the culinary world, as well? Or could it possibly be that cooking and the preparation of food, more or less, started out as a woman’s domain, and in order for a man to surpass that and to make his own stomping grounds, they had to pull out a more flashy, more ambitious route in order to get to the place where they’re at? Are women chefs more subtle in their styles, while men more showy?
“Now, not all mama cooks are women but all the show-off cooks are men. Boys with chemistry sets. Boy food is about: ‘Look at me!’” (sfgate)
The professional kitchen is often described as a “boy’s club.” Knives and pans are toys, cooking during peak dinner hours is the sport itself, and after the score has been settled for the night, the aprons are hung and the male chefs head out to the bars to celebrate the game. While this view may be perceived as supremely generalized and perhaps insulting to a lot of female chefs who have made headway and who are just capable as any male chef is, the question still remains – why is it that the profession of a chef reads as so much more male friendly than female friendly?

What are the institutional barriers that women face in the culinary world? Is it the fact that while their capability is not the issue, people’s ideas and the general population perceives a woman’s cooking to be more “nurturing” and “subtle” while a man’s cooking is more “ambitious” and “flashy,” and that might make restaurants less likely to want to hire a woman chef over a man’s chef, despite both their skill-sets and levels of talent being comparable?

While the distinction is not necessary one that’s place along a hierarchy of which gender cooks “better,” it’s certainly a theory that each respective gender cooks differently - with subtle, but notable, purposes and styles. That may or may not lead to the reality of the situation in the culinary world of why there are more women in the kitchen at home and more men in the kitchen professionally. In the end, I’d love to explore this issue more . . . maybe even before I rant about who won Top Chef this season.

(That’s an entirely separate blog entry.)


2elle said...

As a Top Chef fan(atic), I too have noticed the lack of women finalists with dismay. From what I've heard, the culinary world is very much male dominated at the upper levels. Women are directed to become pastry chefs and this is often seen as less prestigious. It is really unfortunate that this is yet another example of an industry where women have to fight twice as hard to get the same job and the same respect.

Rebecca said...

For years Food and Wine Magazine (yes I am a long time subscriber) did a yearly top ten list of chefs and there was always one token woman.

A few years ago Michelin awarded a woman the coveted 3 star rating. French chef Anne-Sophie
Pin was only the 4th woman in the history of France to receive the award.

In 2009, the James Beard ‘s Awards Gala theme was Women in Food but sadly only 16 of the 96 nominees for awards were actually women.

The fact is that female chefs do not achieve the same recognition or critical acclaim as their male counterparts.

It would seem that we have come a long way from the notion that a woman’s place is in the domestic kitchen and that the only kitchen appropriate for a man is a professional one. But I think it boils (no pun intended) down to this: a woman can be a cook but a man can be a chef.