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.


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§ 10 Responses to Why is the kitchen so sexist?

  • Historiann says:

    Ginny, I find your analysis persuasive here. The machismo of the professional kitchen likely has many roots, but I think you’ve hit on three important ones: 1) the military roots and organization of the professional kitchen, 2) the kitchen’s openness to recent immigrants, and 3) that many men in the professional kitchen may be defensive about the fact that cooking in a domestic context is gendered female. And I think you make great points about both the volume and crudeness of the sexism women encounter in professional kitchens is of a different kind than women proffies or other professionals these days.

    There may be one exception to your generalization: women in medicine, esp. those who enter traditionally very male-dominated subspecialties like surgery or critical care. Women in those fields frequently put up with the toxic levels of misogyny you report. This may be an example that bolsters your analysis, in that 1) medical care, like cuisine, is body care, and body care is gendered female in the domestic sphere, and 2) the men who remain in largely male medical subfields may be defensive about the gendering of primary care medicine female and the increasing numbers of women going into primary care subspecialties (pediatrics and family medicine). They may feel particularly defensive/under assualt in their macho subfields.

    Keep on blogging. You have a readership interested in exploring these ideas.

    • Ginny W says:

      Thanks for the kind words! I get so frustrated with dealing with the sexism in my industry, and no one seems to be discussing solutions, so I’m left with defining the problem and looking to other industries to try to find solutions.

      I don’t know much about medical fields, so I had no idea about surgeons, but that does make some sense. I wonder if I can track down some women surgeons and see how they deal with it?

  • frasersherman says:

    Just wanted to say I was looking over the past four or five posts, all very interesting. If rather depressing.-Fraser

  • cgeye says:

    It’s misogyny *and* homophobia; a floorwax and a dessert topping!

    In most of the cultures of the world, children learn cooking from their mothers. Once those kids grow up and start to learn skillz, they get a big dose of “this ain’t yer mama’s kitchen”, with all the profanity and queer-baiting as hazing bonuses. Thus, all the stupid masculinity and hepatitis dares (drugs, tattoos, general hygiene risks), in defiance of what boys are told good kitchens are — clean, orderly, safe.

    Overgrown and insecure boys have pissed on a domain that women have been socialized into mastering from the time of hunting and gathering. Yes, I know professional cooking requires study and apprenticeship, but throw a broad who’s done holiday cooking for a large family into a restaurant, and she’d know the rhythms.

    That unease in young men’s gender identities, when they remember what they learned at home, requires breaking by their masculine role models. There’s a reason Army cooks are the model for professional cuisine; they’ve got handy, non-competitive definitions for women — mothers, or whores. And, that’s why successful female chefs go butch: Honorary men who follow boys’ rules are welcome. Considering the sexual harassment epidemic in those spaces, a steeltoed boot and an ability to throw a punch would come in handy….

  • cgeye says:

    The larger question is: In such a gendered arena where women have a learned advantage, why are there male cooks, at all?

    Women work for less; women eat less, so there’s less pilferage. What were the kitchens of 30, 40, 50 years ago like? Were men needed for the large pans and weights, involved? Is there an ongoing ergonomic tradeoff — between brawny, skanky, unreliable men who, if they beat off most of their competitors (um…) win their own Iron Chef competition, and become a hotshot, and nimble, centered women who’d actually ask for better working conditions and pay similar to men? Who might actually give a damn about food waste, an inevitable by-product of trying for ideal dishes?

    What did institutions have to do with setting these gender roles in stone? Hell, why aren’t food trucks majority-run by women, since they aren’t competiting with guys to set one up, and the dimensions and work schedule might be more conducive for working mothers? Why is even that type of restaurant bigfooted by the usual bigmouthed guys?

    • Ginny W says:

      OK, whoa. I’m going to approve these comments, because I think you have some points worthy of discussion, but there’s a strong thread of misandry to your comments, and it’s not acceptable here. There’s also a lot of ignorance. For example: No, cooking for a large family gathering is not actually much like cooking in a restaurant at all, unless it’s cafeteria-style. There are many reasons to get tattoos that do not include proving one’s masculinity, and getting a tattoo from a safe and reliable artist is not a major risk. Working in a restaurant kitchen still requires quite a lot of physical strength.

      Your stereotypes of women, men, and soldiers are pretty rank, too.

      Look, I get fucking pissed about this shit, too. But generalizing the wretched sexism to all men, or all male cooks, doesn’t do any fucking good. Neither does generalizing good qualities to women. It isn’t useful or constructive, and it isn’t just blowing off steam, and I’m not, as a rule, going to stand for it in my space. Be warned. You want to say this kind of shit, say it in your own space.

  • cgeye says:

    So, I’m wrong, and relying on stereotypes. But so is most of the foodie/restaurant coverage, which emphasizes the tattoos and risk-taking behaviors as part of the macho charm.

    If you have time to talk about this, please continue to talk about what you see. I’m ignorant. Why shouldn’t I take on face value the image of chefs as being bad boys who’ve avoided jail or worse, because they can cook? The PR gals don’t mind using that bad-boy image for the entire industry, because it generates business. If fewer people are talking about alternatives to that, I won’t know about them.

    • Ginny W says:

      Of course coverage relies on stereotypes. And helps to create them. It’s the popular media, they’re not much good at nuanced portrayals. And they’re not always inaccurate. Do cooks get tattoos as part of the rituals of hypermasculinity? Yes, of course. A sous chef at a place I worked was about to get his first tattoo, but hadn’t decided what yet. The executive chef for the restaurant group said he’d pay for it if the sous chef got a tattoo of a pickle (a reference to the hazing the sous had gone through when he first started there), and the sous did it. It was utter bullshit, and completely part of the cult of hypermasculinity. But I, for example, get tattoos for spiritual reasons. The one I’ve got and the next couple I have planned aren’t visible when I’m dressed normally, because they aren’t for showing off, and the only visible ones I have planned are pretty damn girly. There are other reasons. And, again, there’s no particular risk of hep in a good, clean, reliable establishment.

      You shouldn’t take the popular depictions at face value because they’re the popular depictions, and those are always both narrow and shallow. There’s a lot more going on. Yes, of course, the Bad Boy Chefs exist — hooboy, do they — but they aren’t anything like the whole story.

      But yes, talking about my experiences in the industry is part of what this blog is for. Stick around, maybe you’ll learn a few things.

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