The Rising Star of Food
O ver the past two decades, food, and its preparation, have experienced a meteoric rise as a source of entertainment. The birth of specialty channels dedicated to it, the cult of celebrity chefs, and the number of televised cooking competitions are all testaments to our ever-growing obsession with food and the culture surrounding it. Like many, I have voraciously devoured this content, drawn in particularly by those shows that examine food as cultural practice and feature the kitchen as a space for art, innovation, and haute cuisine. For years, I consumed this content happily and uncritically – until I watched a particular episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Entitled “Japan: Cook it Raw,” this program took 15 of the world’s best chefs and threw them “into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar ingredients.” Viewers were invited to follow these innovators as they ruggedly foraged the forest floor for ingredients, waded through mud to hunt for duck, pontificated over what makes great cooking, and finally presented their experimental dishes to some of the world’s most esteemed food critics. Yet, as entertaining as it all was, I found myself distracted by what wasn’t on the screen: women. Or, to be more specific, women chefs. This omission was all the more glaring because it seemed to go unnoticed by the participant chefs, producers of the program, and organizers of the event.
And like spotting the hidden image in an optical illusion, once I saw this glaring absence, I couldn’t unsee it. Over the past couple of years, in fact, I’ve continued to watch countless hours of food-focused programming and have come to realize that this absence of women isn’t an anomaly; it is the norm. Out of six episodes of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, only one episode features a woman, Chef Niki Nakayama. Likewise for David Chang’s The Mind of a Chef. And as for Anthony Bourdain, I can only recall one episode of Parts Unknown (“Miami”) where he has been accompanied by a female chef colleague.
Food critics are no better. Check any list of the best 20, 50, or even 100 chefs in the world, and you can easily count the number of women included on one hand, and in many instances they are partnered with a male chef. Worse, not a single woman appears in the top 10. Even in the world of mixology, the creative, haute version of drinking, women are conspicuously absent when it comes to recognition, even though bartending has a large female workforce. And I’m just scratching the surface. It would be inaccurate to deny that this discrepancy in the number of male and female chefs isn’t in part the result of there simply being less women heading kitchens in the world of haute cuisine. But, this fact alone is not enough to explain this imbalance.
Home Cook versus Haute Cuisine
Historically, the private (or domestic sphere) was seen as pertaining to women who, due to their perceived fragile nature, needed to be kept away from the vulgarities and complexities of public life. The public sphere, meanwhile, was seen as the domain of men, where they could engage in and discuss pressing and complex topics such as politics and business. This strict dichotomy has been largely broken down in many parts of the world, yet is clearly still being replicated in new ways in the world of haute cuisine. Cooking, when elevated to the level of art and portrayed as a creative and innovative pursuit worthy of feature films, biographies, and specialty programs, almost always features men as the protagonists. Women sometimes appear in the kitchen in these contexts, of course, but predominantly as assistants or pastry chefs, with only few exceptions. Otherwise, when it comes to cooking, women are expected to cook primarily in order to nourish others (home cooking). Unsurprisingly, then, virtually all of the women chefs featured on television programs are filmed in their homes, creating meals for family and friends. Cooking for creative expression or personal passion has become secondary.
However, more often than not, when women are featured in the kitchen, it is in limited, essentialized, and nostalgic ways, as, for example, the Italian mother or “nonna” (seen in recent ads for Casa di Mama’s frozen pizza or Ikea kitchens). Almost never is she presented as an innovator worthy of a Michelin star. This characterization, ironically, works to make the labor of women – who still carry most of the burden of housework, despite the fact that women make up almost 50% of the workforce in North America and Europe – conveniently invisible, suggesting that the mother/wife/partner who cares for her loved ones through the provision of home cooking is a thing of the past or an idealized notion. This image does further harm to women in the context of growing concerns over children’s health and the obesity epidemic by simultaneously laying the blame at their feet, even if indirectly: As women have become so caught up in their pursuit of a career outside of the home, they have led the younger generation to rely on a diet of processed fast foods. Modern women are thus charged with two counts of being unworthy of the title of chef.
Stirring the Pot
How can the industry begin to correct this imbalance? First, there needs to be acknowledgement that, while there may be a dearth of women chefs in the world of haute cuisine, it is a result of a larger problem that isn’t simply due to their lack of interest in pursuing this career path.
The absence of top women chefs needs to be understood as a systemic problem.
Just like how the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has pointed out a fatal flaw in the film industry that not only is the work of black actors and filmmakers overlooked, but Hollywood is not creating enough opportunities that could even garner them a nomination. There needs to be an honest dialogue among those working in the world of haute cuisine (and its admirers) about the lack of women within it. Sexist attitudes about women not being able to hack it in the high-stress world of running a top-class kitchen need to broken down, and a more open attitude to women in the kitchen needs to prevail.
This is good advice for the business world, as well. As Shane Ferro recently wrote in a piece for Business Insider, “the problem with women in the workplace is men.” Male leadership needs to become more conscious of the exclusion of women and be willing to work to remedy the imbalance. That means that women don’t just need to “lean in;” men have to first make some room at the table by “leaning out.” After all, great leaders take many forms: the aggressive alpha male, as embodied by top chefs like Gordon Ramsay, is not the only kind of person who can successfully lead a team.
Secondly, the male-dominated world of haute cuisine needs to acknowledge the work of women who are already doing innovative and interesting things with food, and not just as a novelty. As more women become recognized for their work, it is very possible that it will inspire many more women to pursue a similar path. This can only be a good thing. As is the case in business, the more perspectives brought into the great kitchens of the world, the more possibilities for original and inspiring creations. In the end, actively welcoming women into the fold might be the most innovative thing haute cuisine could ever do.