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Are Women "Chefs" Or Just "Cooks?"

Illustration for article titled Are Women Chefs Or Just Cooks?

"Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art". That's renowned chef Fernand Point in 1950, but apparently plenty of folks still adhere to this idea. The persistent school of thought, says Sophie Radice in The Independent, is that "men are chefs and women merely cooks," but in this age of Top Chefs, is that still true? And is it even a bad thing? Apparently, it might be.Radice knows of what she speaks: in her house, she's the everyday cook, but her husband is the chef. "For he believes that only men can be truly great cooks. And though he is not a misogynist in real life, he certainly is in the kitchen." Of course, (beyond the question of whether selective chauvinism is a viable concept) in some ways, we should all have such troubles - there are certainly worse things than having a partner who handles the stress of dinner parties - and ironically, these ancient prejudices can have a liberating effect. Radice mentions Nigella Lawson's assertion that "Freedom from kitchen servitude is recent enough for women to flaunt their undomesticity – just as women of an older generation often refused to learn to type or learn shorthand." However, to the extend this chauvinism plays out in the larger world, quite obviously it's problematic: women chefs tend to be qualified just that way - as "women chefs" - and even when this is treated as a positive, there's a certain tweeness to it, a sense that women bring an earth-mother serenity and sensitivity to the cooking process that's distinct from traditional chefs' militaristic mastery. The machismo of the professional kitchen is legendary, and generally women who survive there are regarded as unusually tough or preternaturally serene. Radice quotes Michelin-starred chef "Clare Smyth, "I could never say I'm tired, or I'm sick, or I've cut my finger, as the response would be, 'It's because you're a girl.'" Certainly, women in the kitchen are regarded as the exception - there's been just one female Top Chef winner, for instance, which was considered a Big Deal - and Gordon Ramsay (not known for his sensitivity in any realm), and who, it should be said, doesn't seem to have a problem putting women executive chefs in his kitchens) is quoted in the piece as saying, "Women can't cook to save their lives." The woman as nurturer, men as performer stereotype, of course, is not all bad - certainly as cuisine has evolved from the purely technical to the more straightforward and connected (a movement spawned in large part by women, chiefly Alice Waters) the issue has become more nuanced. And it can't be denied that men and women, in civilian cooking, do often take different approaches - many men I've known in the kitchen are more engaged by complicated recipes and esoteric cooking challenges than the primal pleasure of feeding and nurturing people. Whether, however, this is societally-grounded is hard to say. (I should say that as cooking has ceased to be a need and has become a status-y hobby, I've also known plenty of women who only dabble in showy cooking, too.) The classic idea of a "chef "is masculine by reductive definition: a man's role in a man's world. I like to think the definition of the term is softening and changing, rather than that women are being forced into a circumscribed and outdated mold. Like ballet, cooking's a rigid and time-honored discipline. However, unlike dance it's forced to change with our habits and tastes. As such, hope that "cook" is not the pejorative chefs like Point would have made it, but rather something altogether new : still rooted in the realities of feeding rather than the show of dining - less regimented, less patriarchal, sure, than the purely masculine "chef," but ultimately not lacking in precision, skill or status. Although, apparently the author's husband has yet to get that memo. Help - my husband thinks he's a superchef! [Independent] [Image via Bravo]


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Something else that strikes me while watching Top Chef is how all of the contestants tend to loathe baking or making any kind of dessert, as if knowing how to bake is almost a "maternal" or not as hardcore as knowing how to butcher a rib rack. I caught a season-1 episode yesterday where Tiffani is making a wedding cake from box mix, and Chef Tom is shocked that she would do so, and her response is "well, none of us know how to bake that well," as if it was a valid excuse. Of course, I think it's bullshit, because I think that people don't like baking is that they can't fudge it the way they can other kinds of cookery—it's too exacting. I know that's why my husband hates doing it.

That said, he at least respects my ability to bake, and is thrilled that I've embraced baking things like focaccia (seriously, easiest thing EVER) to go with our soup dinners.