Cooks vs. chefs

What does it mean to be a female in the kitchen?

August 15, 2007

About a month ago, the New York Times ran an article titled “Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan.” Written by Leslie Kaufman, the article began with the statement, “For the past 10 years, I have starred in my own reality series: ‘Working Mom Cooks Weeknight Dinner.’”

Kaufman’s article — an amalgam of practical cooking tips, parenting confessions, and childhood memories — was straightforward and wry. (In fact, not unlike our own Kitchen Limbo column.) The blog Slashfood picked it up and promoted it. Readers began to leave comments — including a comment taking the article to task for, apparently, promoting pre-feminist ideals of womanhood:

I can’t possibly understand why Slashfood would choose to highlight this retrograde June Cleaver nonsense.

Barbara Fisher, who keeps a blog called Tigers & Strawberries, had a response of her own: a lengthy assessment of why cooking for your family isn’t necessarily feminist or unfeminist. As Fisher wrote:

The theme that delineated the brief comment is one that has always bothered me, and that is the idea that a woman cooking for her family is somehow outdated, unfeminist and anti-woman. It is somehow politically incorrect for a mother to want to cook for her family.

Kaufman, Fisher pointed out, gave a precise explanation of her motivations: “I committed to cooking a family meal when my first son was born, in 1997, not because of any psychology study about the well-being of children, but because it gave me comfort.” Kaufman, in other words, likes to cook, and to cook for her loved ones. And of course, you don’t have to be a woman to like doing either, or both.

Have XX chromosomes, will cook?

Perhaps the commentator on the Slashfood post hadn’t heard of Cameron Stracher’s new book, Dinner with Dad, about a working dad deciding to make homecooked meals for his kids. Or read Matthew Amster-Burton’s writing (in his Unexplained Bacon column, among other places), much of which features his efforts to feed his daughter in a satisfying way.

The bigger problem might simply be that we don’t know how to think about cooking and family without old stereotypes getting in the way. In late June, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story by Mike Weiss with the lengthy title of “What is it about the cooking of WOMEN CHEFS that makes it more memorable, more comforting than that of men?” (Yes, the all-caps come straight from the Chronicle.)

As Weiss put it, some of the best food he’d ever eaten in the Bay Area was made by renowned female chefs. Surely, Weiss wrote, there must be something inherent — more nurturing, perhaps? — about women.

First, he interviewed Joyce Goldstein, a cookbook author and former restaurant owner. Her response was just what Weiss was looking for:

“Listen, there are two kinds of cooks, there’s mama cooks and show-off cooks,” said the doyenne of San Francisco women chefs. “Now, not all mama cooks are women but all the show-off cooks are men. Boys with chemistry sets. Boy food is about: ‘Look at me!’”
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Weiss then interrogated girl chefs Loretta Keller (“she has the wide shoulders and tapered torso of a skier”), Ann Cooper, Nancy Oakes (“peaches-and-cream skin”), Alice Waters (“feathery voice”), and Traci Des Jardins (“a dramatic looking woman”). He also talked to three guy chefs, James Syhabout (“soft-spoken, seemingly sweet-natured and ambitious”), Ravi Kapur (“unruly jet black curls and a narrow goatee”), and Pat Kuleto.

All of them, more or less, agreed with the idea that cooks can be nurturing or pretentious, and that it’s hard to be both. Some were more resistant to the idea that cooking styles were bred in the bone, so to speak. And it was the women who pointed out that being a professional cook is a tougher life for women than for men. As Des Jardins said:

I think the real story about women chefs is: Why aren’t there more women running restaurants like the French Laundry, or Jean Georges? I think women have different priorities. I have run kitchens like that and it takes such intensity you can’t have anything else in your life. Then women crash into their child-bearing years, and they have a much greater focus on their home life.

Women chefs — well, one of them — are on the big screen right now, in “No Reservations,” the American remake of the 2001 German movie “Mostly Martha.” In the U.S. version, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a driven chef whose life is upended by the sudden death of her sister and arrival of her niece. The workaholic chef learns to take it easy, enjoy life, find love, and be a surrogate mom. All’s well that ends well, right?

But, as Stephanie Zacharek pointed out in her Salon review of the film, “There’s something a little insulting about the movie’s premise to begin with: It suggests that a woman who’s good at her job, and who takes pride and pleasure in it, must necessarily have some glaring lack that needs to be filled.”

No wonder we get so confused about whether women belong in the kitchen.

Also on Culinate: An article about male chefs not having their own magazines.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by jacqueline church on Aug 22, 2007 at 10:37 PM PDT

I’ve tried to have this conversation so many times. This topic of food, cooking, elevation of chefs, it’s rife with possibilities of discourse. And still, we have Bourdain’s “grill bitch” and very little else. I saw one thoughtful piece on Ratatouille and its reflection/perpetuation of male centered reality...and still women (the few at the top) in this field make the same errors as our male younger self would never have thought it would be so.
shame on us all...we elevate the chefs who wax eloquent on their shows about the true honest food in the kitchens of mothers, yet do little else to promote the women who might actually be their peers here. false praise if you ask me.
- gourmetfood (dot) suite101 (dot) com

2. by whatscooking on Mar 4, 2008 at 7:29 PM PST

Who cares what gender is in the kitchen, as long as they are trying to be in control of the ingredients consumed by their families. This is a great conversation to have - even with our kids and future chefs / parents! Personally, I love nothing more than showing my love for my family than through cooking healthy and “real” food.

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