In case you missed it, Time magazine recently ran a cover story titled “The Gods of Food.” The online media world of course erupted when it was quickly discovered that these “gods” of food were just that: gods. The list of the culinary elite failed to include a woman.
If you thought the under representation of women was just at Fortune 500 companies and politics, think again. Boy’s clubs are everywhere. But what’s worse is how the media exacerbates this cycle. As Amanda Cohen, chef at Dirty Candy put it in the New York Times, “The reality of the situation is that there are lots of women in professional kitchens, and there always have been, but for some reason the press choose not to cover them.”
It’s a problem of under representation in the industry itself, but it’s also a problem of image and how the media portrays women.
I wrote about this topic last week for an online French publication (if your college French is up to par, attack it here), because if you think the U.S. is the only one experiencing this problem, you’re wrong. At around the same time the “Gods of Food” article came out, so did “Génération New French Bistrot” in L’Express, a French weekly. Again, no ladies to be found. But there was “Eat Girls: La nouvelle génération des chefs“ that Madame Figaro published, a selection of very talented and well-respected female chefs.
The only problem? The main photo was all of the women decked out in skintight black outfits – a mini skirt here, a pair of pleather pants there – and lips bright red with lipstick. Not only are these women talented, the article pointed out, but they are “cool and sexy.” I’ll tell you one thing: red lipstick isn’t a kitchen utensil that will help you get food out the door to hundreds of customers when you’re running a restaurant.
Pair that photo next to the lead image of “Gods of Food” and you can see the problem: sexy women, professional men. A gender stereotype that is exacerbated in all domains.
“But wait! We’re women, we’re supposed to be sexy! If we’re not sexy, are we still women?” That’s what the media would like to have us believe.
I saw an article last week with tips on transitioning from the kitchen to the dinner table. Yes, it was in fact a piece on how to cook a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner and still manage to look hot at the dinner table. From chef to host in 5 minutes flat! Once you’ve gotten rid of the apron, you’ll need two coats of volumizing mascara and some lip stain in case you were wondering.
Therein lies the problem. (And for the record, your college feminism professor is squirming right now.)
Culturally, when it comes to food, we’re often stuck in a 1950s image of women. It was almost like the copyright on a Better Homes and Gardens article from 1951 just ran out and the website decided to reprint it, with a few tweaks here and there to accommodate for modern makeup tips.
No matter how progressive we think we are, we continue to be bogged down in gender roles. Women put daily food on the table. They make meals. Men, however, cook professionally. They make works of art.
As Michael Pollan wrote in his recent book “Cooked”:
“Since ancient times, a few special types of cooking have enjoyed considerable prestige : Homer’s warriors barbecued their own joints of meat at no cost to their heroic status or masculinity. And ever since, it has been socially acceptable for men to cook in pulic and professionally – for money… But for most of history most of humanity’s food has been cooked by women working out of public view and without public recognition. Except for the rare ceremonial traditions over which men preside… cooking has traditionally been women’s work, part and parcel of homemaking and childcare, and therefore undeserving of serious – i.e. male – attention.”
So, until we start to work on our gender imaging, and think about feminism in the kitchen, we can expect more of the same.
As Adeline Grattard, one of the female chefs featured in the Madame Figaro article told Grub Street, “I don’t think it helps us — the opposite in fact. We’re not ‘women.’ We’re chefs. Putting the female part at the forefront is a negative thing… It discredits our importance in the métier.”
Exactly. They are chefs. Not sexy chefs. Not cool chefs. Just chefs. They should be respected for what they do, and the mass media should be challenged to diversify its coverage of the food industry and when it talks about women, do it in a way that honors their work not their looks.
Don’t want sexism in the food industry? Support chefs not because they’re famous and mega stars and a magazine assured you that an 18 course tasting menu simply was the “in” thing right now, but because their food is good, because they are innovative and doing things differently and because they are skilled, talented and passionate about their jobs.
Image: Lori L. Stalteri