A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.

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Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].

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Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.

 

References

[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

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