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.

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