Where are all the feminist cooks?

September 22, 2010 § 9 Comments

Women cooks have an uneasy relationship with feminism, by and large. I mentioned, in my post on Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, asking my kitchen manager if she was a feminist, and how her answer showed both a discomfort with and an ignorance of real feminism. A couple of days later, I asked my only woman line cook. Her response was something like, “Well, I guess on a spectrum, I’d be closer to feminist than not, but I’m not militant about it. Although, matriarchy would be fun!”

I despair.

A couple of days after that, we had some people in, quite late, who were in from out of town, a woman and two men, all young and queer. The woman and one of the men were thinking about moving to my city and starting a food truck, and they were asking my advice. They’d had a few, so the conversation kept wandering, and the woman started asking about feminist community in town. I had to admit that, as far as I knew, it was kind of fractured, so that I knew where to find sex-positive feminists and gender theory feminists and lesbian feminists and queer feminists (which are, locally, more distinct from lesbian feminists than from sex-positive and gender theory feminists) and Asian-American feminists, but other than the local chapter of NOW, I didn’t know where to find any sort of pan-feminist community or discussion space. But the question made me want to jump up and hug her.

She is not, to be clear, a professional cook herself, although she will be if she successfully starts this food truck. Her food service background is in concessions, which is quite different, so she’s less affected by kitchen culture than I am. Still, to find an avowed and active feminist in food service wowed me. I hope she does move to town, and that she does keep in touch, because that would be really awesome on multiple levels. She gave me some hope.

I haven’t asked the third woman cook I have on staff at the moment if she counts herself a feminist. I’m a little afraid to.

Feminism isn’t something that’s discussed in kitchens. We don’t talk about it. Many of the few articles that discuss the dearth of women cooks and chefs (which are already few and far between) don’t talk about feminism. And they’re often responded to with “What are you talking about? Everything’s FINE!” (Not that this is an unfamiliar response to any feminist.) Here’s an example. It’s over two years old, but I’m using it because it’s still the most recent one I can recall seeing, and the only one I still have the links for. Laura Shapiro wrote this piece for Gourmet Magazine about why there are so few high profile women chefs in NYC. Sarah Wolf wrote this incoherent and irrelevant response about how it’s ok that there aren’t women chefs, because there are lots of women with TV cooking shows, or something. And we shouldn’t denigrate their choices. Shapiro’s article does actually discuss the problem as a feminist, and this is awesome. What she doesn’t do is offer any answers, or even suggestions. Wolf’s response, on the other hand, misses the boat.

Here’s another article, this one nearly three years old, from New York Magazine. They interviewed seven prominent women chefs in NYC, and the responses are no surprise at all. He’s an excerpt from the intro:

It’s worth noting that almost to a woman, the chefs we spoke to were at first reluctant to cite sexism as the reason there aren’t more women among the city’s elite chefs. In part, it seemed, they didn’t want to play the victim or be labeled whiny; in part, they didn’t want to believe it—the better to not let it stop them. “There are also a lot of men who can’t hack it in the kitchen,” was a common sentiment. But the more the women talked, the more it became clear that gender bias is still an issue.

And from later in the piece:

Professional kitchens are traditionally shamelessly sexist. Is that still true?
AG: I worked in Paris for five years for Guy Savoy. And then one of the chefs was like, “You suck, you’re a girl, I hate you.” All the classic stereotypes. And Guy Savoy was like, “Will you just stop that crap and let her do her job? Let her cook the damn bass.” And then when I burned it, Guy was like, “Ahh!” But he still believed in me.
AB: I didn’t want the fact that I was a woman to be an issue, so I just put my head down and cooked and did the best that I could. I moved to wherever I was able to move. And one day, some guys came in and shook everyone’s hands, and I held out my hand and this guy just walked straight past me. It’s like, “Okay, fuck you. I’m gonna be better than you one day.”
RC: I mean, the delivery guy comes in the afternoon to deliver something and he looks over to my sous-chef and asks for his signature on the check. Am I just some dumb-ass holding a coat?
JW: My mail is always addressed to Mr. Jody Williams.
AL: That happens to me all the time. I get my mail addressed to Anito Lo—not an a but an o: Mr. Anito Lo. And customers ask me, “Can you tell us about the chef’s background? Is he from…”

But none of these chefs says the word “sexist,” much less the word “feminist.”

It isn’t just that women in professional kitchens aren’t exposed to much feminism, it’s that active feminism is actually thought of — although no one I know would phrase it this way — as weakness. Saying that something is sexist and wrong is whining, is complaining, and is therefor weak and bad and something you especially can’t do if you’re a woman, and so already have to prove that you aren’t weak. Feminism — active, educated, considered feminism, not just a vague sense that women should have the same legal rights as men — is a liability. And yet feminism is exactly what’s most likely to provide any kind of solution to the problems we face.

Right, I’m sick of these multiple-years-old articles. Let me find some fresh meat….

Oh thank god. Gastronomica comes to my rescue with a satisfying eight-page article from the first quarter of this year, called “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs,” on the vastly different adjectives, clothing, and narratives tacked on to male vs female chefs. (You can download a pdf of it here.) Referencing Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” this piece by Charlotte Druckman discusses the disparity in awards and Michelin reviews (much less stars); how women are cooks while men are chefs; the difference between cooking shows starring men and those starring women; how articles on women chef up-play femininity, family and figure; how food cooked by men is described using a whole different lexicon than that cooked by women; and female exceptionalism. Holy shit, I love this article. And yet, the word “feminist” is used only once — to reference the people Nochlin “forced . . . to challenge their own practices.” And the only suggestion the article gives is, “The women who ought to question their culpability or power to effect change are those with agency and clout — the members of social institutions like the media and culinary organizations.” Which, ok, yeah, they should, but I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I can do, with all the clout of a tiny ten-table restaurant. Identifying problems is good, it’s useful, I like it, but now what am I supposed to do about them?

Ah, here’s a piece by Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a Michelin-recommended vegetarian restaurant in NYC (and, dear god, now that I have discovered its existence, I must eat there; that menu looks AMAZING), all about how Girls Can’t Cook. Well, we must not be able to, right? Out of 24 winners of the James Beard award last year, only three were women. In four years, 93 Beard Awards have been given out, and only 15 of them have gone to women. Oh, women can write about food. Look at Ruth Reichel, Gael Greene, Julia Child, and M.F.K. Fisher. But we must not be able to cook, and clearly don’t belong in the kitchen. Hey, I like this lady! But still, the word “feminism” is nowhere to be seen. It’s a great, snarky rant, fun to read, but still, it gives me no solutions, nothing to try.

Oh, hey, here’s a piece by Paula Forbes at EatMeDaily about why she quit cooking professionally. She doesn’t want to think it was the sexism, but it probably was. Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! She uses “feminism” or “feminist” four whole times. In one paragraph! About whether or not feminist principles require women to keep working in misogynist professions in order to improve them. Well, it’s an interesting question, and an important one, but she apparently decided that, whether feminist principles demand it or not, she’s not staying. Which, of course, is entirely her choice, and I don’t fault her for it a bit. But then where are the feminist cooks? And what can I do to help to fix the problems she’s encountered?

Where are the feminist cooks, dammit? Where are the feminists in the profession talking about what feminism can do to improve our lives? Where are the feminists outside the profession talking about it, for that matter? Why are feminist principles not being brought to bear on this problem? Why is feminism an even dirtier word inside the kitchen than outside it?

I’m a feminist, and I’m staying. Now, what the fuck do I do about this mess? And who’s going to help me?

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§ 9 Responses to Where are all the feminist cooks?

  • […] learn about a new feminist blog by Chef Ginny W., “A Kitchen of One’s Own.”   She writes about the problem that in professional kitchens still has no name:  “It isn’t just that women in professional kitchens aren’t exposed to much feminism, […]

  • Sixwing says:

    “Girls” can’t cook, huh?
    What a surprise to the people who’ve been doing it for umpty centuries, the people who have been in the domestic-cook-clean-childcare loop for how long? /facepalm
    Next thing you know, “girls” won’t be able to do anything right. Oh wait…

    I wish I knew what to do to help. “Not assuming the chef is a man” seems like a good start but it’s so tiny.

  • Ginny W says:

    Well, you know, cooking professionally is different. Chicks cook homey, comfort food, and that’s fine for at home, but men cook daring, bold, cutting-edge food, and that’s what it takes for a restaurant to really succeed.

  • pearl says:

    wow, great conversation, why the hell haven’t we had it before? Oh, I forgot; The Patriarchy. As my sister says,
    “Where are they? The feminist chefs are everywhere, not getting recognition, payment or advancement. Just like all other feminist talent in every other field in the world. I guess I would actually expect it to be WORSE in the kitchen than anywhere else since men must culturally overcome their inner “sissy” to even BE chefs.”
    Well said.
    Let’s keep the conversation going!

  • cgeye says:

    I believe, half-seriously, that molecular gastronomy is a patriarchal diversion from the opportunities locavore cuisine can make for women in the food industry.

    Y’know, that “homey”, “canning” thing, becoming a focus of farm-to-table industry, which means that the women who for all these centuries kept tastes and seeds and folkways alive could get some recognition? But pshaw — let’s go to the chemistry set and food additives, where real men can play.

    • Ginny W says:

      I fucking hate this false division set up that sets up molecular gastronomy as men’s cooking, and as opposed to local and seasonal ideas. It is massive bullshit.

      At my restaurant, we source many things locally and sustainably, and work hard to maintain seasonality. We also incorporate the occasional element of molecular gastronomy, and it’s my ambition to bring the principles of MG to a wider population in a future restaurant.

      The idea that MG is men’s cooking partakes of multiple massively sexist stereotypes, the primary ones being that science is men’s work, and that men cook flashy food and women cook comfort food. They’re both bullshit. And I’ll thank you to stop spreading them in my blog.

      • Zuska says:

        I would agree with you that anyone is perfectly capable of doing MG and that there is nothing inherent in the techniques themselves that makes them masculine – they are just techniques, using scientific principles, and those techniques and principles are what they are. But we all know (and by we, I mean those of us who have spent some time perusing the feminist histories of technology) that technologies do get gendered, and contribute to the gendering of ourselves. And so I think it is reasonable to ask some questions about how it is that the advent and use of MG technologies in American cuisine is gendered and contributes to gendering those who are its most avid practitioners. That is, MG is, perhaps, one way in which prominent male chefs perform their masculinity in the restaurant kitchen. If this is the case, a female chef may be in love with, and adopt the usage of, MG technologies, but may not be able, by doing so, to significantly disrupt the widespread understanding that has already attached itself to the use of these technologies and that certain high profile individuals continue to propagandize.

        It might be like me saying “I love Dodge Ram trucks! There’s nothing about a truck that is inherently masculine! Anyone can drive a truck!” All of these statements would be true. And yet the cultural understanding of Dodge Ram Trucks as vehicles which exist to help d00dly d00ds perform their masculinity in a very public manner would still go on uninterrupted.

        I am NOT saying that it is a GOOD thing that the dude with the deep truck voice on the tv commercials keeps telling us all that trucks will help everyone know what a man you are, or that MG remains tightly coupled with a style of performing masculinity as a chef. In fact it would be most desirable to uncouple these things and disrupt these understandings.

        It is equally undesirable to think that homey foods and canning are all womany – my mom’s cousin makes excellent pickles, and cans all sorts of stuff, and why shouldn’t he? And yet, I think it is important to recognize that for so long, these sorts of food were devalued precisely because they were strongly associated with women. To the extent that they are being “rediscovered” and more highly valued now, it may be because trendy male chefs are on the locavore bandwagon. Not because what women have done for decades is suddenly being recognized as having been of value all along, but because it’s the latest new food trend. When I poke around, I can find some women chefs/restaurant owners who were early leaders in the locavore movement but it is the dude chefs whose praises get sung in the restaurant reviews.

        • Ginny W says:

          You are absolutely correct, MG techniques have become a way in which male chefs perform their masculinity. I can’t uncouple those MG and masculinity — or locavorism or canning and femininity — in the overculture, but I can refuse to allow them to be coupled in my own space. I am against the gendering of food consumption and preparation in any way, and while I encourage the discussion of ways in which our culture genders food, that doesn’t include perpetuation of those stereotypes. Nor am I ok with perpetuating stereotypes that falsely dichotomize MG and locavorism.

          These are problems that not a lot of feminists are aware of, as far as I can tell, and that lack of awareness appears to have led to many feminists devaluing cooking styles gendered as masculine, without a thorough understanding of exactly what they entail. The gendering of cooking styles pisses me off pretty thoroughly, which is one of my reasons for starting this blog, so I’m inclined to come down on it pretty hard here in my space.

          I’m not inclined to let anybody tell me my Jeep is studly, either.

  • Eri says:

    I’ll say it. I left kitchens almost entirely because of sexism. I could have coped with the abuse had it been more equally distributed, but no, it went to the token girl. The fact that I’m a tiny little thing with a rack on me did not help. I regret not having the balls to call (several) of my former employers on either being sexist as hell, or letting their managers be. I had a boss who would watch my male counter-part screw up, and then blame it on me, or jump down my throat if I made the same mistake. Because “artistic tempers” are okay in kitchens for some nonsense reason, people are a lot more willing to look the other way when it comes down on the girl. “We all get it” yeah, not like that you don’t. I almost started to believe them for a while, that it was “just the way it was” the fact that I was a woman had nothing to do with it until one of my co-workers apologized on behalf of his gender to me.

    How to fix it? Well, for starters, let girls be girls in kitchens. I had to set aside not only my feminism while at work, but my femininity. I was afraid to be too girlish because I’d either get razzed for it, or then have to deal with unwanted comments (again).

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