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Girl On Girl Action: Our Editors Go Deep Into The ‘Female Chef’ Debate

Image Credit: Tina Nguyen

In a moment of really satisfying irony, Eric Ripert started a debate on Twitter yesterday about women in the food industry, in response to Anthony Bourdain questioning why there has to be a distinction between male and female chefs in the first place. See, he tagged a bunch of his male friends to participate in the discussion. Mario Batali. Eddie Huang. Jose Andres. Daniel Boulud. The manner in which this debate kicked off was such a glaring, perfect example of the problem it aimed to address. We, being ladies and commenters on the industry, could not sit idly by while, well, one gender debated the role of another. We basically took the conversation off Twitter and into our office, forming this magnum opus on Female Chefs.

Mariella Mosthof: Like, yes, please, let’s have a panel of powerful male chefs tell us how to talk about women in the industry. As you pointed out when we first reported it, Tina, I certainly don’t think Eric intentionally excluded women from the conversation, but even that made it more hilarious. You know, in that maniacal laughter that ensues when you realize you’re never going to win sort of way.

Tina Nguyen: Of course all those great male chefs are not sexist. It’s probably one of those things where the concept of “women chefs” as “chefs who are also women” is completely foreign to them. Not in a pejorative, negative way — “There’s no way that a woman could work a hot line!” or whatever pre-1990s canard you can think of — but in a way that doesn’t take into consideration the limitations of being a woman while also being talented, hardworking, etc. They see the latter qualities (i.e., everything that ends up on the plate), but not the atmosphere, history, and culture surrounding women.

(BTW, I swore I’d never turn into Gloria Steniem. What have you done to me?!)

MM: (I don’t know, I’m having my Betty Freidan moment, too. Let’s just embrace our spirit animals and move on.)

Lest I mince words, Bourdain’s exact sentiment was, “Why — at this point in history — do we need a ‘Best Female Chef’ special designation? As if they are curiosities? #2013 #50BestWhat?”

While I appreciate the acknowledgment that Lady Chefs aren’t the sideshow freaks of the culinary world, for him to insinuate that a chef is a chef and we don’t need a distinction is awfully idealistic.

TN: Not to be a Bourdain apologist, or to pretend that I can speak for him, but I can understand his sentiment as being “gender-blind,” because he doesn’t care about who cooks his food as long as it tastes good. But, the way he projects his personal opinion on the world is almost like someone saying, “I don’t care about race; therefore, racism doesn’t exist and we can stop talking about it.” In saying that, one denies that enough people are rabidly racist enough for racism to still be a pressing issue, and that the recipients of said racism are profoundly affected by it.

Sure, Bourdain would like the rest of the industry to treat women with respect. But is simply denying that the problem exists the right way to go about solving it? Of course not.

MM: And Eric jumped in to say that the World’s 50 Best article was “wrong” because it didn’t reflect the numbers at Le Bernardin (a respectable 1/3 of his brigade is made up of women, and one of those ladies is employed as a sous chef). Just because he happens to run a remarkably egalitarian kitchen doesn’t mean that’s happening all over the country.

I imagine that a female chef’s encounters with sexism, like one or two other matters of equality that come to mind, are relative to the city in which she lives and her employers. Some cities are very equality conscious and their work environments reflect that. Some cities, or some individual employers, are still behind the times.

Personally — and this is very much an opinion divorced from The Royal We typically espoused by this site — I think it’s important for the distinction of Lady Chef to exist on The Braiser as a vehicle for women to prop up other women. When I’m effusively praising some Lady Chef or other, I’m not doing it FOR men, and I’m not talking TO men. If they get something out of it, great. But the culinary industry is ultimately a sexist one (see: facts and figures, read: books), and I think the best way to cope with and combat that is to acknowledge that the problem exists, to validate women’s struggles, and to be a place that gives them the recognition they can’t find in their own circles.

Rattle off your Michelin star count and wow the curious third-grader inside me with your sciencey molecular innovations all you like. I’ll be impressed. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be as impressed as I was reading that line in Blood, Bones, and Butter where Gabrielle Hamilton’s eight-month pregnant belly is grazing the rubber mats in Prune’s kitchen, while she’s reaching under a cabinet to clean her station. (Sidebar: Spike Mendelsohn is equally wowed by the majesty of pregnancy, and would like to prove his point by telling all male chefs to try giving birth on a prep table. Two snaps for Spike.)

Amanda Cohen wrote a longform response to the debate, and what seems to be important about the distinction for her — and by extension, the reason she writes “Lady Chef Stampede” every week — is to highlight female chefs who have never been acknowledged, but are every bit as deserving of credit as as their male counterparts. For her, it seems to be about due diligence.

But she also makes a great point questioning why we in food media cover men so much more that we cover women. Firstly, I’d like to thank her from the marrow of my weary bones for acknowledging that we’re “deadline-oppressed” and overworked.

TN: Ha! The media is dying.

On the national beat, I see maybe four or five blogs, and two or three magazines, covering food culture and culinary issues (note that I’m making a distinction between “food culture” versus “just food”). In daily print, an average food section is maybe staffed by two people. At best. Who knows when those tight staffs have time to look beyond the chefs they already know (or are pitched by PR)? When do they get the time to go find, and develop really good stories about, great female chefs that no one else is covering?

MM: Also, might it be that male chefs receive a deluge of coverage because they’re more likely to drum up controversy and/or run their mouths? From the smattering of debate replies that Eric Ripert received and re-Tweeted from women around the country, male chefs really seem to be in a position of safety and power, while women have to keep their heads down and “work twice as hard” just to prove that they’re worthy of being on the line.

If we want to talk about TV editing, we saw the stark differences between the chest-beating all-male teams on The Taste versus the focused, occasionally icy vibe from the all-female teams, did we not? Bourdain even commented on it. Might it be that women don’t have ego bullshit getting in the way of their cooking? Are they less incendiary? That feels like a generalization of male vs female behavior, and I don’t have a degree to back that up. But I do think that when female chefs stir shit up, they swiftly get the “crazy bitch” label slapped on them, whereas male chefs (like dudes on the dating scene) are touted as just playing the game.

Look at this past season of Top Chef: Brooke Williamson and Lizzie Binder made it to the final 5, and we knew virtually nothing about them until the end of the season. They were glossed over for a solid 13 episodes because they flew under the radar. Their cooking spoke for itself, and propelled them to the end, but their “characters” weren’t fleshed out until everyone was confused about how these two randos were still in the competition. Oh, Brooke is a super-driven chef making a splash on the LA scene? Oh, Lizzie’s a freakin’ Traci Des Jardins protege?! Why haven’t we been talking this up all season? Why can I recite the John Tesar: Most Hated Chef In Dallas profile in my sleep, but I couldn’t remember that Lizzie worked for Des Jardins until the episode in which she was eliminated?

TN: Exactly! And you know who got the crazy person edit that season? “Look At This Crazy Lesbian” Josie and “Look At This Crazy Italian” Carla. I’m sure they’re both perfectly lovely people, but for some reason, I ended up hating them during the show’s run. In fact, those seem to be the two edits that women get on Top Chef : the quiet, sweet, hard worker; or the crazy, loud, aggressive chef that you eventually can’t stand. Wait, no, there’s three edits: “crazy homewrecker”; aka the Tale Of Leah Cohen, who got slut-shamed so hard that she left the country for a year. (Her year abroad in Asia did lead to the awesome Pig and Khao, so not all is lost!)

But you don’t see this love-’em-or-hate-’em dichotomy in the way men are characterized on Top Chef, and you certainly don’t see anyone ever characterized as a totally irredeemable asshole (with the exception of Marcel Vigneron, of course).

As a side note, my life goal is for women to have the ability to known as assholes and not just bitches — semantically, being a “bitch” seems way less redeemable than being an “asshole”.

MM: I think the best policy for getting recognized for what you do as a Lady Chef is to stay true to who you are. If you’re a ballbuster, then fucking lean in. If your personal standards for professionalism require you to keep your head down and let your food speak for itself, do that until your work propels you to the top.

TN: I’m gonna start navel-gazing as a Media Person and say that we should also examine why it is that we’re writing about this debate, and to whom we’re trying to prove these points. Obviously, journalists and bloggers writing the “Lady Chef” angle are writing to people in the industry (hi, chefs). But our audience isn’t just chefs, it’s the entire restaurant industry — line cooks, suppliers, PR people, farmers, and, the general, restaurant-going public. It doesn’t matter if a famous, powerful chef can look sideways at his peers and think that neither he nor they are sexist — what matters is the environment of the organization below him, and the social structure surrounding him. 

MM: Make your own community. Amanda Cohen and Gabrielle Hamilton did it. Their restaurants are predominantly staffed by women. Don’t work in sexist kitchens. Tell other female chefs not to work there. Easier said than done, but eventually, those head chefs’ lines and kitchens will suffer. Obviously, people need to work, and you take jobs where you can find them. But don’t settle for working in a sexist kitchen a minute longer than you have to. Do what you need to do, and GTFO ASAP. Eventually, men will realize they can’t treat women the way they have been in kitchens, both in terms of ignoring their accomplishments, and general Alpha-Bro harassment.

TN: At the same time, guys really should actively promote female chefs if they think they’re brilliant and worthy — and seriously promote them for their food, too. Walk the talk, dudes! Mario Batali’s relationship with April Bloomfield is one of my favorite examples of how a well-known male chef can promote a female chef: he not only selected her to run the Spotted Pig and financed her restaurant, he gave her his media imprimatur, too — and after that, she did the other 95% of the work (being a really fucking good chef and businesswoman). But arguably, the fact that the media does cover Bloomfield a ton is a crucial factor in why she has a legitimate restaurant empire. It should also be noted that Batali never resorted to the “Look at this woman being a woman in a man’s world!” line when he started promoting The Spotted Pig, which is awesome.

While we like to think that culinary nepotism is essentially nonexistent, I have to pose a rhetorical question: could Elena Arzak have trained in the best kitchens in Europe if her last name were not Arzak? Granted, her father, renowned chef Juan Mari Arzak, is the winner of The Braiser’s Best Dad Award for bursting into tears of joy when she won the Best Female Chef award. But if her father had been a random Basque fisherman instead, would Elena have been accepted into the kitchens of Le Gavroche in 1989? 

MM: Yes, I’m inclined to dole out snaps to Batali as well. I want to develop an exchange program where all these gender-blind New York City slickers slum it on a line in Small Town, USA for a couple of weeks at the request of an oppressed Lady Chef out there to teach their male counterparts some fucking mutual respect for the fellow human. The worst male offenders on the line have to come to New York and work under a badass Lady Chef for a week. Like Wife Swap, but with misogyny! Oh, wait. (No seriously, get the Magical Elves on the phone, this shit is gold.)

I think you’re onto something with the training aspect. For example, I don’t think Top Chef judging is sexist or producer-manipulated for drama, but why have there only been two female winners out of ten? Why do men cook better food eight out of ten times in that microcosm? Are women being overlooked for legitimate training opportunities and apprenticeships early on and is that filtering up to make women generally less successful cooks than their male counterparts? Is that the spot we target for change? That’s my rhetorical question to answer and echo yours.

TN: I think it’s possible that we’ll see actual gender equality in kitchens, and if not by tomorrow morning, then in due time. It’s not like there’s any rabid opposition against women getting recognition in kitchens, either in an organized manner (groups like Focus On The Family), or in the restaurant culture at large. But if anything’s going to change, strong female chefs will need allies, in the form of media support and male chefs lobbying for their recognition and respect.

In short, I’m all about the “hearts and minds” campaign — which is only a good tactic when it’s not involved in warfare, because hey, this isn’t a war! Men are not fighting women! Women are not fighting men! It’s about the progress of cuisine as an art form.

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