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.

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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