Why is the kitchen so sexist?
September 26, 2010 § 10 Comments
So Ginny, just why is the professional kitchen so sexist?
Once upon a time, professional kitchens were the demesne of men merely because they were professional, and only men were professionals. King Louis XV of France had vehemently opposed the idea that women could cook fine cuisine, and the world had generally agreed. The hierarchy of the kitchen — the brigade de cuisine or kitchen brigade — was based on the command structure of Army cooks, modified and first set in place in the Savoy Hotel kitchens by Georges Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier based his brigade on the structures he experienced while in the Army during the Franco-Prussian War.
The hours were long, the work was messy and physically demanding, the cooks were working-class, and the discipline was harsh. It was not unlike being in the infantry. Except, of course, that the work they were doing, if done in a home, was women’s work.
And that does seem to be the crux of it. Other professions where men have traditionally dominated have improved far more than mine. The sciences, technology, math, engineering: these are all still difficult fields for women, but are no longer places where a woman’s workspace is likely to be covered in porn, or where blatant sexual harassment — grab-assing and open slut shaming — are tolerated (usually). Percents of women in leading positions (professors in the sciences and maths, chefs in cooking) are comparable, running roughly 9-10% women in both (cite 1, cite 2), but STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields have actively and collectively been working on the problem for longer, and so the improvements have been greater. But other male-dominated professions aren’t “women’s work” in another context, and I, like many cooks and chefs of both genders, can’t help but think that it’s related.
Oh, there are lots of other contributing factors. It doesn’t help that kitchen work (especially at the lower levels) is a popular choice for recent immigrants from countries with cultures even stricter sex segregation and greater misogyny than the US has. It doesn’t help that cooking is still generally considered to be vocational work rather than professional (although chefs are starting to be an exception), and so different standards of behavior apply. It doesn’t help that the popular media continues to focus on male chefs, or depict women as home cooks (think about how Rachael Ray is presented as opposed to Gordon Ramsey). It doesn’t help that the stereotype is that men are bolder, more experimental, more exacting with food, while women prefer to cook nourishing or comforting food.
But the general consensus is that male cooks have to be ultra-masculine because they’re cooks, and cooking is women’s work. Which means that women cooks do, too.
Is the general consensus true? Fuck if I know, but it comes up in pretty much every conversation on the topic, and is frequently asserted boldly by those who have no kitchen experience and who think it’s an original idea as well as by those who have been in the industry for years. Even bastions of the Old Boys Club subscribe to this hypothesis. But it’s not like we can know for sure.