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.


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