So, you’re in pastry, right?

September 29, 2010 § 22 Comments

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it.

“So, you’re in pastry, right?”

I’m a woman, so of course I’m in pastry. I heard it all through culinary school, I’ve heard it in restaurants, I’ve heard it from total strangers I meet out and about. It’s pretty tiresome.

I suppose every industry has its own version of it. A blue-haired friend of mine who’s a software engineer tells me that what she always gets is, “You’re in marketing, right?”

But in kitchens, it’s pastry.

Pastry is sweet and sugary and dainty and cute, so of course it’s women’s business.

Women in pastry don’t have to conform to the hypermasculine culture of the line cooks, but on the other hand, this makes the “dough bitches” easily dismissed by the rest of the kitchen. They don’t come in for the hazing and the harassment, but they don’t get taken seriously, either. What they do get, again and again, is having to listen to the same “jokes” and “banter” that women on the line do, plus a line of shit about how useless and girly their work is. They also have to put up with the line cooks stealing their prep and ingredients, because, hey, patisserie doesn’t matter, they can remake it, it’s no big deal.

Feminists and sociologists have long discussed how the marketing and consumption of food is highly gendered. And it is, very much so. What most people outside the industry don’t necessarily realize is that preparation and style of food is also highly gendered.

Haute cuisine is masculine. Comfort food is feminine. Molecular gastronomy is masculine. Pastry is feminine. BBQ is masculine, spicy food is masculine, anything with big, bold flavors and cutting edge styling is masculine. Soups and stews and pot roasts and, ahem, pies — homestyle food — are feminine.

Last year, the Astor Food and Wine Center in Manhattan hosted a panel on the differences between male and female chefs. The four panelists each tried five courses consisting of two paired dishes featuring the same main ingredient, one prepared by a woman and one by a man. The panelists then tried to determine which dish was which. Unsurprisingly, they found no significant differences, and got it wrong as often as they got it right.

But the panelists did list some of their preconceived notions and cliches, including:

  • Women chefs use spices more subtly than men
  • Male chefs love to make use of lots of toys in their cooking (look out, Grant Achatz)
  • Female chefs cook to nurture and feed people’s souls, while male chefs cook to compete and impress
  • Women chefs are more likely to cook soulful “grandmere-style” food than their male counterparts, who are much more likely to be into dazzling, technique-driven cooking
  • Male chefs like to cook red meat; women chefs are much more likely to cook pink food and use edible flowers
  • Women chefs are more precise. They follow instructions more carefully than men do
  • Women chefs’ food is more subtle and sophisticated, while their male counterparts cook gutsier, deep-flavored, testosterone-driven food
  • Women chefs cook with their hearts and souls, while male chefs cook with their head and their private parts

Men cook with their private parts? What, are they stirring the sauces with their dicks? Remind me never to eat in a restaurant with a male chef again. And what in the fuck is “testosterone-driven food”? Are we talking Rocky Mountain Oysters here, or are they infusing androgens into the steak, or what? What the fuck does any of this shit mean?

The one stereotype I’ll address is the notion that women chefs are “more precise” and “follow instructions more carefully.” You know why that one exists? Because women have to be more precise to survive in the male-dominated kitchen. We have to be twice as good as the men to get half the recognition — same old story, familiar to women in every field.

The piece on this event I linked above — a summary by one of the panelists, Ed Levine of SeriousEats — after admitting that no one on the panel could consistently identify any dishes as made by a man or a woman, after admitting that “it’s impossible to glean by looking and tasting whether a dish was created by a man or a woman,” after admitting that mentors matter more than gender, that all the chefs were “influenced and inspired by family members of both sexes,” still insists that cooking style is a function of gender as well as experience and personality, that gender “certainly affects how chefs cook,” even though “neither the chefs nor the panelists could articulate how and why exactly.”

Fucking gender essentialist bullshit. What the fuck? What from that panel led them to think that gender had anything to do with how chefs cooks? Nothing. Only stereotypes and preconceptions.

Women get shut out of restaurants with “male” cuisines, even more than other restaurants, and other women cooks norm the same stereotypes that the men do. From this interview with seven women chefs, which I’ve linked to before:

Do women and men cook differently?
SJ: I think women cook different food, and I think women cook better food. It’s more from the heart and more from the soul. I look at this whole molecular-gastronomy thing, and I’m like, “Boys with toys.” They’re just fascinated with technology and chemistry sets. I think we make better-tasting food. I’m sorry, I know that’s politically incorrect.
RC: I have to agree. Women’s food is, for the most part, more accessible, it’s easier to understand, it’s friendlier, it’s more comforting, and it doesn’t get bogged down in all these nutty freaking trends.
SJ: I find there’s a lot of technique in male food.
AB: I have a friend from England who’s a cook, and he said the food that’s most moved him has always been cooked by a woman. Maybe because it’s comfort food or it’s very nurturing.
JW: Or maybe he just liked the idea of a woman cooking for him.

When everyone is feeding you the same line of shit, it’s hard not to believe it. The few of us who disagree, who want to play with the “boys’ toys,” who’re into the techniques and the equipment and the cutting-edge shit, we’re often outsiders even within the much-othered group of women cooks and chefs. If you can’t fit in with anybody, the men or the women, kitchen life gets even harder.

And still the question echoes, from the mouths of men and women alike: So, you’re in pastry, right?

But I’m not, and I never have been, and I never will be. And I will cook any damned way I please.

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§ 22 Responses to So, you’re in pastry, right?

  • nm says:

    I would not be at all surprised to discover that male and female chefs (and food critics) talk about cooking differently. There’s a lot of evidence about the different ways men and women are socialized to express themselves. And I’m pretty sure that that’s part of what lets people like Ed Levine dismiss the evidence that the food isn’t actually distinguishable.

  • G says:

    When I was in business school a few decades, even my father assumed I was in marketing (women weren’t in finance in those days, the minority and female ghettoes were HR and marketing). It’s the same old crap in every field.

  • Historiann says:

    Essentialism stinks, from women or men.

  • snobographer says:

    male chefs cook with their head and their private parts

    That’s just unsanitary.

  • Cassy says:

    Pastry is the “woman’s” field, and yet, the pastry chefs with the popular, well-known TV shows (Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss) are men.

    Funny how that works. *sigh*

    • Ginny W says:

      Yep. Hi-larious.

      And you notice how the narrative of Ace of Cakes is all about how Duff is such a Bad Boy, and how he does things “his way,” makes them “awesome,” all that. Yep. Hi-larious.

    • jc says:

      Cassy, you have it ALLZ RONG. The menz are ACE and BOSS. The cake is irrelevant. Details my dear, details. The menz are IN CHARGE OF SOMETHING!!11!!11!1

      Zuskateer here reporting for duty, bucket of puke ready for dumping.

  • PixelFish says:

    My boyfriend and I–both hobbyists at cooking–cook exactly the opposite of the preconceptions listed in this article. He follows instructions SO precisely, he gets blocked if he doesn’t have just the right ingredients, while I’m all, “No five spice? No problem! I’ll just toss this at it instead.” I’m more “toy-oriented” since I will ask can we get a mandolin, while the Boy is “Let’s just use the knives.” I’m not sure I’ve tended towards pink food–although I LOVE lining up brightly coloured ingredients–chopped veggies and the like–and taking pictures.

    Gender binaries are silly.

    • marcmagus says:

      Wait, you’re not secretly my girlfriend, are you?

      We’re pretty much the same way: if I can’t conceptualize what I’m going to do as a sequence of step-by-step instructions I get totally stuck and can’t do anything, and my girlfriend is much better at working with what she’s got. She laughs at my neat little rows of pinch cups and bowls lined up in order. Also, she’s usually the one to cook the red meat.

  • fannie says:

    “Men cook with their private parts? What, are they stirring the sauces with their dicks?”


  • mandor says:

    I remember Marian McPartland saying something similar about being a jazz pianist before she made a name for herself–she would show up for a gig and people would assume she was the vocalist.

  • Luza says:

    I’m a Mexican writer and editor. I just got here thanks to a friend and I found your post very interesting. (Thanks for sharing!) I was wondering if I can borrow it (with the proper translation in spanish) for a blog about culinary culture:
    Gracias, espero tu respuesta,

    • Ginny W says:

      I’d be proud to have my work translated and reposted. All I ask is attribution and a link. My own Spanish is very bad, but I’d like very much to see how it translates.

      • Luza says:

        Thank you very much! We’ll send you the link -attribution included 😉 as soon as we have it ready.
        Congratulations again!


        • Ginny W says:

          Por supuesto! I want to get people talking about these things, because the more people are talking about them, the sooner we may find solutions. And the more languages it’s in, the more people it’s available to.

  • anty says:

    And when men are pastry chefs they get an article about it:

    “Think pastry is a woman’s domain? Don’t tell that to these guys!” Oy.

  • […] So You’re in Pastry, Right? When you’re a woman in a professional kitchen, it’s assumed you’re relegated to pastry, like female doctors pushed into the OB/GYN specialty. […]

  • Leah says:

    I just discovered your blog (please come back!) and this is such a great piece. It’s upsetting how pervasive this kind of sexism is in every field. (I must be an expat wife, not a professional with a grad degree.) When everyone is feeding you the same line of shit, it’s hard not to believe it. So true.

    By the way, I think your blog is amazing. It’s great to know there are other people out there who are problematizing the relationship between women and food on a professional level. I can’t believe how ridiculous Levine’s comments and “intuition” were.

  • […] W. “So, you’re in pastry, right?” A Kitchen of One’s Own. 29 Sept. 2010. “I’m a woman, so of course I’m in […]

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