Editor’s Pick
MAY 10, 2010 3:40PM

The Gender Debate [in the Professional Kitchen]

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Amanda Cohen wrote a rant on Dirt Candy's website about how the James Beard awards consisted of mainly male winners and nominees:

"I’ve been wondering about this for a long time, and I’ve never said anything before, but recently what I suspected was finally confirmed: women can’t cook. I thought they could, but after this year’s James Beard awards, I realize: nope. 24 people received awards this year, and three of them were women (one chef, one pastry chef and Ariane Batterberry shared a Lifetime Achievement Award with her husband)." [For those of you that aren't familiar with the James Beard award, it's basically like the Grammy or the Academy Awards of the restaurant world.]

Dirt Candy is a great restaurant and Cohen is their talented executive chef. Very talented. The other female chefs she mentions, April Bloomfield and Anita Lo, are just as talented. Her graph though, is a bit disturbing. As a statistics nerd (and science nerd), it makes me cringe a little A LOT:

  Now, I wouldn't say that the number of awards given out to a gender is equated with cooking ability. Awards are just merits or accolades of recognition and the basis of that is usually subjective or based on a voting system. Additionally, a lot of the men nominated for James Beard were already well-known or at least under the radar -- I would not be surprised if they all had PR representation. Not. at. all.

Grub Street wrote a response to Cohen's rant about the hype:

"The more a chef is written about, the more likely he is to win awards, and vice versa — so being excluded from the media-awards continuum hits female chefs coming and going. "Why would an investor back a female chef in a restaurant?" asks Cohen. "He knows that she won’t get the hype and attention a male chef will get." Hype seems to be the key here, not talent: Women just don't seem to come by it as easily as men do."

Sadly, to an extent it's true. Volatile chefs and chefs with temper tantrums seem to make a lot of appearances in food sites just because it garners so much attention. Interestingly, I feel like if a female chef did something similar it would automatically be attributed to PMS or that she's simply "a bitch." The double standards are immense but it's not even just in the restaurant industry because you see it almost everywhere.

Cohen did write a rant after all and I can see her frustration in the male dominated world of restaurants. The recognized men in the food world are mainly male chefs but women? The most recognized women are usually associated with "lifestyles" and "down to earth home cooking" (or "Mom's cooking" if you wanna call it that). So, what would female chefs have to do to get a little bit of attention?

There was a food event a year ago that I remember called "Gender Confusion: Unraveling the Myths of Gender in the Restaurant Kitchen" at the Astor Center:

"The panel was presented ten courses in sets of two, one made by a man and one by a woman. They tasted both dishes before discussing their thoughts with the audience and casting their votes for the chefs' genders. After the panelists stated their predictions, the chefs of each course were revealed, and they came out to discuss the results, introduce themselves, and answer any questions." (via)

You just have to read the whole review and the results at Eat Me Daily to get a sense of how things went. So, how much does food style and taste differ depending on the gender of the Chef? Not a lot. We would be eating a lot of "masculine" food if that was the case.  Someone wrote on Eat Me Daily about why she quit cooking: the professional kitchen is basically a boy's club because it's usually male dominated. Sometimes kitchens run by an executive female chef are not as sexist politically incorrect or male dominated; in fact, in these cases the atmosphere can be the opposite since I know of a male line cook that worked in a mostly female kitchen. To my knowledge, the kitchen jokes in a female dominated atmosphere involve less vulgar kitchen Spanish, body part jokes or sexual simulations using kitchen tools and utensils as the male dominated kitchens [yeah, this happens in professional kitchens!]

Overall, we can't deny that a gender difference exists in professional kitchens, whether it's cultural or more biological, the gender debate will probably never die.

What do you think? Did I forget to mention something?

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As the great-great granddaughter of the first female head chef to work in Chicago I find the duplicity of the situation disheartening. Many great chefs credit their mothers as the biggest influence in their cooking careers, yet frequently discredit the contributions and abilities of their female colleagues.
Women are expected to be able to cook-for their families- not as a career. This is why stories about female chefs who rise through the ranks are rare and why women like Elizabeth Brandon are the exception.
Saute and pastry chef, general manager of restuarants and hotels and consultant. I left the restaurant industry after 13 in the back of the house and another 5 out front when I realized that all of my talents would not be taken seriously. This is a super acurate perspective on what happens in restaurants.
I run a b&b now and couldnt be happier.
@Good Night Meggy: I have to wonder what it was like for your great-great-grandmother! I would be so proud of her. Considering what things are like now, I wonder how much worse, if it is, back then or if it was more appropriate because she was a woman in the kitchen.

@MissOjib: Thanks for commenting. I wonder if you've ever encountered sexist remarks in the back of the house I mentioned. I wonder if B&Bs are the way to go for women just because the atmosphere in the kitchen seems so different...
Men are sexist pigs when they won't cook....
and sexist when the cook too much.

Maybe they spend all their time cooking to get away from nagging American women who won't give them a moment's peace!