FemiNoshing: Why Are Most Chefs Men?

A woman’s place, the old saying goes, is in the kitchen.

I would comfortably bet you that, in the majority of heterosexual households in this country, indeed, all over the world, the women are usually the ones producing the meals. After all, nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven, and cooking is the way to a man’s heart.

Even in 2009, a wife who doesn’t cook for her husband is looked at askance; a mother who doesn’t cook, or at least dish up healthy meals for her husband and children, is an abomination (just ask Sarah Haskins). ‘Cause cooking is, you know, a woman’s thing. It’s in our genes. As the gatherers, we have evolved to wait for our hunting men to bring the dead mammoth back to the cave so we can lovingly roast it for our family. It is our biological role to nurture, and the most central way we can nurture (other than cleaning up after everyone else) is by cooking. The men, by that same argument, cannot possibly fulfill that role; it’s just evolution.

Or is it?

Take one look at the restaurant industry, and things are very different. Men outnumber women vastly; varying sources pin it at 10 to 1. So what is the story? How is it that these hunters have suddenly turned into gatherers? Don’t they know they are going against the rules of basic evolutionary psychology? These rules apparently don’t apply to professional cooking, the one way to make a solid living off of so-called “domestic” skills.

Master chef Fernand Point, who is credited with revitalizing French cuisine in the early 20th Century, and with fostering the careers of other culinary giants like Paul Bocuse, put it the most bluntly: “Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art,” he once said when asked why there were no women in his kitchen. In other words, at least according to Point, women are incapable of elevating cooking to an art. It’s funny, but that sounds suspiciously like the same argument used to keep women out of the art world, academia—pretty much everywhere. Female brains simply aren’t that sophisticated, little girl, so why don’t you go home and play with your dolls.

Most offensively, it also negates centuries of cooking by women. Can we honestly contend that all culinary artistry was accomplished by the men who went against their biological destinies?

Now, Fernand Point made that statement in 1950, and the ’50s were a time of backlash against the strides women made during World War II. As Euan Ferguson put it in a feature in the Guardian, dated March 25, 2007: “From the Fifties on, French cuisine sank back into a stew brimming with machismo. Women rolled up brusque sleeves and washed slopping pots, (or dressed beautifully and ate the stuff daintily out front), but within the world of French chefs de cuisine, the so-called ‘perpetually moustached’ kitchens, four unprecedented decades of growing emancipation were brushed aside while the real men sweated with the heavy knives, and the brimming stock-pans; and the rosettes, the headlines.”

The influence of men like Point and their rules on who can and cannot produce elevated cuisine is still felt today in restaurant kitchens all over the world.

Jezebel’s Sadie Stein addressed sexism in the restaurant kitchen last year, and a number of professional cooks—some chefs, some not—responded: “I went to culinary school and worked in the industry, and the sexism is so rampant as to be unbelievable,” said one commentator. “I was once told at a job interview, ‘We don’t have any women in the kitchen. How about we put you on wait staff instead?’ I was interviewing to be a sous chef.” Another wrote, “I’m a CIA [Culinary Institute of America] grad who cooked professionally for a few years. Even at school, the sexism was amazing because it was so matter-of-fact: I had professors who told my class that women are better at pastry because they have cold hands, that women are better ‘food stylists’ because they care more about color, that male chefs like food to be challenging, but female chefs just want to feed people. Out in the industry, it was more brutal—if you couldn’t laugh at rape jokes, you were an uptight bitch. I had four or five close female friends from my CIA days, and like me, none of them are still cooking professionally.”

New York magazine also tackled the subject, asking female chefs about sexism in the industry, and whether that was why there were so few women running restaurant kitchens, this time in New York City. “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,” the editors wrote in the introduction. “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. Not that they don’t embrace a stereotype or two themselves. The one thing the group agreed women do better than men? … Clean.”

While I can understand why these women are reluctant to call out their sexist male colleagues, I also find it frustrating. They are all in positions where they can actually finally make a difference for women in their profession, and I hope some of them do. After all, men have never hesitated to promote their own. Why are we, as women, so terrified of doing the same? Why do we have to be twice as fair as the men?

I know it’s tough to stand up to a bully. It’s much easier to avoid them by remaining invisible. But then the bullying never stops. Too often, people in a minority group embrace the prejudices of the majority, hoping that by doing so the majority will forget they are different. The majority doesn’t forget; it just moves on to another target.

This doesn’t just happen in the restaurant world, of course. I remember interviewing women in another male-dominated field—aviation—more than a decade ago. These female pilots had plenty of sexist stories to tell, too, and they, like the chefs, often dealt with it by ignoring it or minimizing it. The prejudices they were dealing with were astonishingly similar: women are not disciplined enough, analytical enough, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, the airplane doesn’t usually care. And yes, I happen to know that first-hand, but that’s another story.

Then there were the physical issues, which I haven’t touched on yet. Fernand Point, if challenged on the “women are not food artists” point, would probably have said that women can’t hack it on the hot food line. At least, that seems to be one of the arguments for the scarcity of female chefs now.

I cannot dispute that working in a restaurant kitchen is exhausting work. Cuts, burns and other injuries are common, and speed is everything. There is a reason why the kitchen staff is usually fit. The work burns calories faster than most kinds of exercise you do in a gym. Still, why should a woman’s artistry be called into question because she can’t carry a 30-quart stockpot across the room? Surely there are plenty of male kitchen workers who can do this, yet cannot produce good sauce.

In the end, all the reasons given for not having as many female chefs as male seem like so much garbage. The same kind of garbage, in fact, that insists that women are better suited genetically for home cooking and cleaning. But I have high hopes that things are changing.

The Guardian article I quoted earlier was actually about Chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who was awarded three stars by the Michelin guide in 2007. She was the first woman to be honored in such a fashion in 56 years. And this year’s Michelin UK guide gave stars to 10 female chefs. That’s four more than the previous year. Sister chefs can do it for themselves — here’s to hoping more get the chance to do so.


PG

Author: A.K. Whitney

A.K. Whitney is a journalist in Southern California.

Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    I disagree with your point of view. I work in the technology field and to be completely honest, men are much more creative than women.

    Women are good at following instructions. Cooking at home doesn’t require that much creativity. Cooking professionally does.

  2. A.K. Whitney says:

    Perfectly honest? HA! What a lot of internalized sexist crap, Jennifer. There are plenty of creative women out there, even in the STEM fields, who would beg to differ. Ever heard of Grace Murray Hopper? Emilie du Chatelet?
    Working in a male-dominated field doesn’t mean you have to slam the door in the face of the women who come after you, even if it gets you a pat on the head from the brodudes. I’ll bet you’re far more creative than you think, Jennifer, but you’ve been so conditioned to think of yourself as inferior for being female that you won’t let yourself believe it.

  3. Sydney says:

    Jennifer’s comment makes me think she’s not really a woman–could be a man trying to pose as a woman named “Jennifer”. In my opinion, creativity is an individual thing, not a male or female thing.

  4. AL says:

    I totally agree with you! I am currently taking some time off from culinary school though I have worked in some kitchens. In my culinary school, I am happy to say there were equal number of males and females but in the work-force few to none to be seen. All the kitchens I have worked in were male dominated and I experienced more sexism in this field than my previous fields. Just because I can’t carry a 30lb stock pot doesn’t mean I don’t have artistic flavour or plating abilities (definitely more than the fine-dining kitchen guys I’ve been around) or can’t work with speed on the line; in fact I’m more in shape than the guys I’ve worked with. Like my mother (an educated doctor and profressor) always said “all women should know how to cook for themselves and in the future for their families”. These men seriously need a WAKE-UP call. This seriously frustrates me to the bone.

  5. Mark says:

    shut the fuck up jennifer, youre oppressing your own gender
    your stupidity makes me want to sob.

  6. Lisa says:

    I am a woman who will open her own Bistro soon and will employ all women in the kitchen. It will run efficiently, be clean, and FULL of creative artful dishes (both main dishes and pastries) full of flavor. I will hire directly out of culinary school giving motivated driven students the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I’ve worked in a male dominated electronics industry for 23 years and managed to not let chauvinist attitudes stop me from achieving my goals. Because the industry shuns talented female chef’s I will have the pick of the best of the best ensuring the success of my restaurant and team. Turns out women work twice as hard to prove themselves in male dominated industries so look out slacker male chefs who get off easy. My hardworking creative team will run circles around you.

  7. Van says:

    @Lisa: So you’re going to exclude men by default from your establishment? Good to know, yay for equality.

  8. John-David Filing says:

    The reason most chefs are men is due to the definition of the word “chef”. Very few women can successfully run a crew in the misogynistic word of the restaurant kitchen. Note that Lisa above is going to run an all-female kitchen (and I’d love and update, and hope for your success!), and the rest of the women commenting are from IT, which has about as much to do with running a restaurant kitchen as being good at math has to do with being proficient at weightlifting. I spent a year working every job possible in a restaurant (dishwasher to general manager), and while I’d have had no problem working under a female chef (giggity), I guarantee that the rest of the $10/hour slugs I worked with would have.

  9. Michael Mata says:

    Is there inequality and sexism? Yes. Does it change the fact that men still, on average, do virtually everything except human empathy, relationships, emotions, and child birth better than women? No. The fact is, the chef disparity is no different than almost any field that exists: men don’t create life, so they create everything else; that is the order of things; and that doesn’t mean that women can’t break through and do exceptional things, it’s just far less likely. If these things were not facts, then why has virtually every important life changing innovation, technology, idea, philosophy … etc., come from the male sex? Look at silicon valley and the pioneers of computers. Where are the woman innovators? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and all of those guys didn’t have some kind of special advantage because they were men. They got on board with computers at the very beginning, spent all of their free time programming and learning everything about computers, trading sleep in high school for time at the overnight computer lab in nearby colleges (story in Outliers), and were obsessive about changing the world, much all like Einstein or Da Vinci or Ben Franklin or any of the greats. There was no sexist plot preventing women from learning to program computers; no sexist conspiracy to keep women from flying commercial airplanes; no plot against women to prevent them from engineering the next great architectural masterpiece. On average, “doing” things is the man’s realm; and it could be argued that women still hold the upper hand: the creation of life pretty much trumps everything.

  10. In other words, they go against the grain of the careers their
    parents had. I believe my exact words were “I don’t want to be your dirty little secret. 8.

  11. Julia says:

    People that think men are better than women piss me off, we are just as strong and creative. I think the thing that holds us women back is our emotions, we let things bother us and it gets us down and I think that holds us back from a lot. Whenever my culinary instructor yells at one of the guys the guys just wipe it off its whatever….when he yells at a girl they take it personally and either cry or let it affect their work….some women need to suck it up its a rough profession quite honestly, it is a lot harder emotionally than one may think but like I said we need to just suck it up and take it like a man….we are as creative and as innovative we just are very emotional that’s why we make good mothers because we feel and nurture but not as many chefs for that very same reason

  12. Julia says:

    And Jennifer you need to stick up for your own kind, good luck in life……

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