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?

A Kitchen . . . of One’s Own?

September 16, 2010 § 5 Comments

My namesake famously said when asked to speak about women and fiction that in order to write, a woman needs money of one’s own and a room of one’s own. Writing, while difficult and demanding, is often a solitary task, and one that requires little in the way of equipment: something to put the words in, something to put the words into it with, research materials perhaps, maybe style guides and dictionaries and thesauruses (all of which functions, in the modern world, can frequently be provided by one tool: the computer). There are, I’m sure, exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.

Cooking takes a bit more. At an absolute minimum, it requires a knife and a source of heat (again, exceptions are exceptions). But cooking fine cuisine to sell to the public, that takes rather a lot more. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, space, and licensing, usually, and it mostly takes a substantial staff of people to help you do it, to prep and cook and sell and serve and advertise and do paperwork. It’s not enough for a chef or a cook to have a room to herself, and time, and money. The quantities of money needed are more than most individuals have ready to hand, so generally one must find someone, or multiple someones, willing to make a loan or investment. One must find space. Usually, one does not actually own the space — a ridiculously huge investment — but rents it, so one must find someone willing to rent it to one, and then one must prepare it: decorate it, fill it with all the things diners require to enjoy their meal. One must find and purchase equipment. One must advertise for, interview, and hire the multitudes of people needed to start and continue to run a restaurant. One must get all of the appropriate licenses and permits, a process that can take months and often much more money. Then there’s menu planning an development, costing, training… Just to serve that first meal to that first person who comes in.

That description, of course, assumes a woman chef-owner opening a new restaurant. But even if the one woman we’re talking about isn’t opening a new restaurant, isn’t the owner, isn’t the chef, someone still had to do all of that, in order for her to cook one single meal or dish (and, of course, all the others that follow it). And then ongoing work required is no less daunting.

Professional cooks work long hours. My cooks work four 10-hour shifts per week. At least that’s what they’re scheduled for. If someone doesn’t come in, they may pick up an extra shift. If the prep work isn’t done, they can’t leave until it is. If there’s a rush just as their shift ends, they may have to stay longer to help the next shift. If the kitchen is filthy, they have to stay as long as it takes to get it clean. My kitchen manager is scheduled three to four 10-hour shifts on the line, plus she works 10-20 hours a week doing paperwork, inventory, ordering, having meetings, doing menu development, plus any shifts she picks up because someone’s out sick and there’s nobody else to take the shift, plus she’s working a second job because I can’t provide her with health insurance yet, and they can (we’re working on it).

So, a woman needs a kitchen in which she is allowed to cook, a support staff to keep the restaurant going, money to fund the whole thing, and the time to spend doing it.

Women, of course, are often expected to spend a lot of non-work time on things that men are expected to spend less or no time on: housework, child care, spouse care. This is changing, but the fact remains that the kind of time demands a chef or kitchen manager position puts on someone are often harder on women than on men. As long as women are de facto primary providers of childcare, are expected to do most of the house cleaning, are expected to take care of their partners, these kinds of hours will be harder on women-in-general than on men-in-general. Most women cooks don’t have kids, and most women who decide to have kids get out of the business (or, if they have the education or professional standing to do it, move to teaching at a culinary school). Hell, most women cooks I know aren’t married or partnered, either. Married or partnered men are not assumed to have as many other duties. Yes, many couples are now negotiating chores along non-traditional lines, and that’s fantastic and awesome, but many more are not. It’s hard for a woman to have the time to be a really good professional cook, much less chef, if she has or wants a partner (although lesbian relationships run on different assumptions) and/or kids. It is damn near impossible for a single mother to become a chef or achieve another kitchen management position. (It’s less impossible for a single father, but still plenty difficult.) Even if a woman has no interest in or intention of having children or getting married, many male chefs and restaurant owners are still likely to assume that women cooks are less reliable than men for these reasons.

(It doesn’t appear in her famous dictum, but my namesake did spend some time thinking and talking about demands on women’s time and how it conflicts with the kinds of careers men have.)

I actually don’t know if it’s harder for women to get together the money to start restaurants, but I sort of assume it is. I had certain advantages in that area that most do not have. It’s certainly harder to get restauranteurs to spend their money building restaurants around women chefs, because women are assumed to be less reliable because they’ll just go off and have kids, because it’s harder for women to build reputations with the public, hell, just because in the public mind chef=man.

Support staff can be hard for a woman chef-owner, because many people are more reluctant to work for women or have a hard time thinking of women as bosses or think women bosses are backstabbing bitches or whatever. Front of house and office staff are often easier, as there seem to be more women in dining room management than in kitchens, but owner or not, a woman chef will have a damned hard time putting together and keeping a good strong kitchen staff. She’ll be perceived either as weak or as bitchy, often with nothing in-between.

Finally, a woman needs a kitchen in which she is allowed to cook. It may not be her own in the literal sense, because not all women who want to cook professionally want to be restaurant owners or even chefs, but it needs to be a kitchen where a woman is treated as an equal, where her contributions are accepted as equal to those of men, where her ideas are given as much weight as those of men. She needs a space where she gets to actually cook, to develop her skills and use them creatively. And that can be damned hard to come by. This part, of course, is why my namesake talked about a room of one’s own, where no one could forbid one from writing if one wished, as opposed to the college she walked the grounds of, where she was forbidden from setting foot on the grass, in the library, and, she assumed, in the chapel. But it simply takes so much money and work and training and support to have a kitchen truly of one’s own that it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of women. So, the compromise: a kitchen, not of one’s own, but in which one is allowed to cook.

So, to cook professionally, at a high level, creatively, a woman needs: A kitchen to use, staff to help, and the time and money to make it work.

My namesake spoke of stacks of books by “the professors,” books about women by angry men, and how few women wrote about women, and how even fewer women wrote about men.

I am here to write about women, and about men, and about why and how it is hard for a woman to get those four things she needs.

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