You Cannot Be Mommy

October 8, 2010 § 9 Comments

Since I’m still sick, and I’ve got all these great folks coming over from Shakesville, where Melissa McEwan was kind enough to link to my little baby blog, I thought I’d find an easier thing to blog than my usual research-intensive entry. I do actually keep a list of topics I plan to talk about at some point, so I pulled it out and scanned down it. Oh, goody. I get to watch a nice, fun movie. A cartoon, even.

Pixar’s Ratatouille is a masterpiece, a beautiful, fun, well-made movie all on its own. But it also touches the heart of gastronomy, the love and study of deliciousness. For a cook, for someone who has devoted her life to food, it’s deeply moving.

And, of course, it has Colette Tatou.

You waste energy and time! You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush while the orders come flooding in, and every dish is different and none are simple, and all different cooking time, but must arrive at the customer’s table at exactly the same time, hot and perfect! Every second counts and you CANNOT be MOMMY!

Colette, of course, is the one woman cook in the kitchen at Gusteau’s.

How many women do you see in this kitchen? . . . Only me. Why do you think that is? Because high cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid, old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world. But still I’m here. How did this happen? . . . Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen! I have worked too hard for too long to get here, and I am not going to jeopardize it for some garbage boy who got lucky! Got it?

She is, too. The crew at Gusteau’s is pretty (stereo)typical, a bunch of guys most people wouldn’t, at first blush, want to meet in dark alleys, some of whom have spent time in prison for unknown reasons, or are serious gamblers, or gun runners, or just slimy little guys about whom you have to wonder how they made it to the station they have. They left out the drinking and drugs — it is a Disney picture — but none of these things are uncommon. Gusteau’s may have a higher concentration of, ahem, colorful characters than most real kitchens, but we are a motley bunch of misfits. Just think how tough must Colette be to be tougher than these guys.

I’m going to ignore all the artifacts of the Disneyness of this movie — ok, most of them, there’s one I want to hit later — like the clean language, the obligatory minimum level of femininity, the romance. Generally, though, she’s really a very accurate portrayal.

Notice that, while her position is never specified, she’s low enough on the totem pole that she’s given the job of training the despised plongeur (“garbage boy” in the film, actually dishwasher), a job only given to the person occupying the station the new person is moving into, so she’s pretty damn low. Notice how she doesn’t want to train him: she’s worked damn hard to get as far as she has, and she knows that training a male for the same job could mean she’s going to watch him be promoted above her in short order (which, in fact, happens). Notice how she trains him anyway . . . and then actually thanks him for listening, almost pathetically grateful for him giving her even that minimum of respect. Notice how she is then hurt and angry when he ignores her advice and blows past her anyway.

Notice also how Colette wants to follow the recipe precisely, while the male Linguini shines when rat Remy nudges him into improvising. There’s that precision vs. bold risk-taking stereotype I was talking about.

Did you catch the nasty little remark the Sous Chef, Horst, tosses at her as he leaves after Linguini and Remy impress people? “The plongeur won’t be coming to you for advice anymore, eh, Colette? He’s got all he needs.” He takes the opportunity to remind her of her place.

And yet, Colette soldiers on, despite everything, because she loves the food and the cooking. Oh, yeah, that’s a woman cook all over.

Understand me here: I am not criticizing Pixar for putting these things in. I am applauding them. The writers and animators spent serious amounts of time in the several professional kitchens they based Gusteau’s on, learning to understand the relationships and dynamics found in those kitchens. They did a remarkable job, and when I watched that movie the first time, I identified with Colette completely. There aren’t many movies about women cooks that are accurate. It feels really good to see that portrayed on screen in a major film. It’s freaking awesome.

That said, I still want to touch on one of those Disney-mandated unrealistic things. The romance.

It’s a bad plan in any profession for a competent, capable woman to date a male superior. Any promotion she earns will be dismissed as favoritism from her boyfriend and any skill she has will be ignored. She cannot possibly be any good, or anything other than a slut, trying to get ahead by sleeping her way there.

Linguini announced his and Colette’s relationship to the press, “Inspiration has many names. Mine is named Colette.” That moment in the movie is supposed to be about how he’s betraying Remy by not being honest, but he’s betraying Colette nearly as much just by these two sentences. In eight words, he demotes her from competent cook on the way up to artist’s muse. As the former, she could keep working her way up. As the latter, she might never get another job in a really good kitchen again, if she and Linguini break up. That gets ignored, of course, shellacked over with Remy’s story, some sharp remarks, and that trademarked Disney happy-ever-after. You can still see it there, embedded in the story, even if you can’t touch it, buried under that clear medium.

I know, I know, they had to have the romance. It’s the way these stories work, isn’t it, and realism will have to take a backseat to that. And I accept that, even if it makes me a little sad. But Colette is still a good character, well and accurately written. I love and identify with her. I love the voice Janeane Garofalo gives her, and the expressions and movements the animators give her. She’s fantastic. I just . . . worry about her. I can’t help but write the rest of her story in my head. They open the cafe Le Ratatouille where Linguini waits tables while Colette helps Remy in the kitchen. But rats have a short life span, and three or four years later, Remy’s dead. Colette takes over, but though she’s tried to learn the kind of creative thinking Remy excelled at, she’s still limited by her early training, and she just can’t manage his flights of fancy. The restaurant starts a slow decline. She and Linguini, married now, are fighting more and more. Eventually, he hires a young, creative, male cook to “help her out” in the kitchen — without really consulting her, because he knows she won’t be happy — and the hotshot tries, more and more, to take over the kitchen. It’s making Colette crazy, and Linguini won’t back her up — he’s really a very weak man, and their major investor (Ego) is pressuring him to get Le Ratatouille back up to snuff. Times get worse and worse, and eventually she walks out on him and starts divorce proceedings. She still owns a share in the cafe, though, and keeps working there, because she knows how hard it will be for her to find another job. There’s just been too much press about how she’s Linguini’s inspiration, his muse. Eventually, though, she has to go, and sure enough, chefs make excuses. No one laughs in her face, but she hears the sniggers of the commis (what’s the plural of commis, anyway?) behind her back as she leaves the interview. Oh, eventually she might find a job at a good place, but it will be a lower position than she deserves, potager or entremetier, nothing on the entree line, not yet. She’ll have to work her way up all over again, earn all that respect again. And there will always be whispers, there will always be guys thinking she’s easy and coming on to her, when she just wants to get her prep done. Oh, eventually she’ll make a solid sous chef somewhere, but with that early training to always adhere to recipes, she may never make chef again. Depressing.

I can’t write an entry on Ratatouille without talking about the Big Scene, where Remy sends out a dressed-up peasant dish to critic Anton Ego, the titular ratatouille. The dish instantly transports Ego back to his childhood, to a day when he fell off his bike and skinned his knees, and his mother kissed him and gave him a big bowl of ratatouille.

The dish presented is actually French Laundry chef-owner Thomas Keller’s byaldi recipe (found in his French Laundry Cookbook), his variant on confit byaldi, created by French chef Michel Guerard as a play on traditional Provencal ratatouille and a Turkish dish called imam bayildi. Keller was a consultant on the film, and created the specific presentation depicted when the Pixar crew asked him how he would serve ratatouille to the most prominent food critic in the world.

All of that is just background, though. What’s most interesting about this dish to me is that it represents a fascinating blend of two strongly gendered aspects of cooking: the focus on technique and stylized presentation attributed to men, and the “soulful grandmere-style” nourishing comfort food attributed to women. In the narrative of the movie, Remy manages to unite the two gendered styles in the same scene that reunites the lovers who quarreled over him. Interesting, and probably not intentional on the part of the writers.

If you’re interested in reading about a real life Colette, Amy Glaze Wittman of Ms. Glaze’s Pommes d’Amour spent time working in one of Guy Savoy’s three star* Paris restaurants, one of those the Pixar crew observed while doing research for Ratatouille. To read about some of Amy’s adventures in a French kitchen, check to the Chef Stories category. You’ll have to go back three or four pages, because since 2008 when she left France, she’s worked in several restaurants in NYC and San Francisco, and had her own kitchen, too. She’s an eloquent writer and really captures what it’s like to work in a really high-end kitchen as a woman. One of my favorite posts of hers is How to Talk Like a French Chef, a lesson in truly foul cursing. The Chocolate Chip Caper talks about how hard the job is sometimes, and oh boy can I identify.

This has been fun to write, although more intensive than I meant it to be. I love the character of Colette. Depictions of women in professional kitchens are so rare in popular media, I want to treasure each good one. Maybe sometime I’ll talk about Mostly Martha and the American version, No Reservations, or about Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (who isn’t a professional cook, but whose ambition is to be a restauranteur).

*Three stars from the Michelin Guide is a far higher accolade than five stars in any American guide. In Europe, “three star” is understood mean these restaurants, and they are the finest in the world. In the movie, Gusteau’s is called a five star restaurant to make it easier for American audiences to recognize it as a really fine restaurant.

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.

Molecular Gastronomy and Me

September 28, 2010 § 17 Comments

A recent comment has prompted me to state my position on something.

I love Molecular Gastronomy.*

I know, I know, The Establishment insists that it’s Men’s Cooking. Only men have the Big Brainz necessary to understand all that haaaaard chemistry, only men cook flashy cutting-edge food. Us women-folk should content ourselves with making nourishing comfort food, because that’s what natural to us. It’s just what women do.

Fuck that noise.

I think it’s fascinating. It’s food as fine art rather than craft, food as abstract art, even. And Accepted Wisdom to the contrary, women can do that, too. And some of us even want to.

I keep hearing bullshit like, “Oh, I don’t like molecular gastronomy. I’m trying to get the chemicals out of my food!” Holy shit, the ignorance. Leaving aside the fact that food, like everything else, is made of chemicals, many of the chemicals the people who say this object to are extracts of other foods. Things like agar agar and sodium alginate are taken from seaweed, lecithin from soy beans, maltodextrin from tapioca. They aren’t any more “unnatural” than the papaya enzymes or essential fatty acids that these people (and I) take as supplements.

Then there’s this idea that MG is somehow not “nourishing,” as if food prepared with Xtra Science somehow has no calories or nutrients. I mean, we certainly have the technology to make food-like substances without calories and nutrients, but it’s not generally a focus of MG. This misapprehension seems to stem from the way MG food is usually served: in a tasting menu. Tasting menus involve a large number of very small courses, and are designed to circumvent palate fatigue, the tendency of the human tongue and brain to stop tasting food as acutely after a few bites. Food served in a tasting menu may leave some diners hungry between courses, but a 10 or 15 course menu is going to deliver roughly as many calories as a plate full of steak and potatoes, ultimately. The tasting menu isn’t for everyone, though. Fortunately, there’s nothing about MG that requires it to be served in a tasting menu format. It’s customary, and for some good reasons, but there’s no reason it can’t be served in larger portions.

Or I hear that MG is opposed to locavorism and sustainability, which is, again, bullshit. This time we’ll leave aside just how privileged you have to be, both geographically and economically, to eat a strict locavore diet, and in how many places that diet would cause severe malnutrition (including diseases like scurvy and pellagra), to point out that many MG restaurants and chefs source many of their ingredients locally and seasonally, as much as is possible in their various locales. They are two distinct, and reasonably compatible, philosophies of food. Sure, they’ll be bringing in some of the more unusual ingredients from outside that magic 100- or 50-mile radius, but most of them will be bringing in their olive oil and salt from outside that radius, too, just like nearly every other restaurant.

I’m very lucky, very privileged, to live in a place where I can get a balanced diet most of the year from food grown in my state. I make an effort to use seasonal, sustainably-farmed, locally-produced (for values of “local” that include “this state and its next-door neighbors”) meats, produce, and wines, but again, things like oils, salts, fresh fruit in winter, spices, and hot peppers can’t be sourced locally, and I don’t try. The restaurant would die if I tried. On the other hand, adding El Bulli’s fizzy crystals to my truffles is just fun.

So yeah, I love Molecular Gastronomy. You’re all welcome to your own opinions of it, love it or hate it, and you’re welcome to express those opinions. But ignorant and sexist comments about how it’s Menz Cooking will not be tolerated.

*OK, fine, we’re not supposed to call it molecular gastronomy. Achatz and Dufresne and Adria and all those chefs don’t like it. I don’t care. I think it’s an awesome name, and they won’t give us one they like better, so I’m using it.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with gendered food at A Kitchen of One's Own.