Bourdain, Ripert, Izard, and Others Ask: ‘Where Are the Great Female Chefs?’

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April Bloomfield: An exception to the rule. Photo: Melissa Hom

It’s a bit fitting that Amanda Freitag is today’s New York Diet, because female chefs have been on everybody’s mind lately. Gastronomica recently published a piece by Charlotte Druckman, titled “Where Are the Great Female Chefs?” and the oft-discussed issue (New York tackled it a few years ago) was the focus of Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert’s “Turn and Burn” show on the Martha Stewart Living station last night. After some bro-ing down with Daniel Boulud (sadly, no real quotables as the chefs mostly just kissed Boulud’s butt), the chefs welcomed restaurateurs Stephanie Izard, Cindy Hutson, and Mary Sue Milliken. Bourdain set the tone by describing his days in the “phallocentric” restaurant business as “a bunch of sweaty guys standing around submarine-sized spaces talking about dick dick dick dick dick.”

Still, things have improved. When Boulud went to the Culinary Institute of America, there were only eight women in the class — now he says enrollment is well over 50 percent. Mary Sue Milliken said she was the only woman out of 90 men at her chef school. She left in tears when the French chef she dreamed of working with offered her a job as a coat-check girl. Still, she was persistent to the point that the chef asked her if she planned to sue him, and when she said she only wanted a job, he finally gave her one at $3.25 per hour.

Eric Ripert made the observation that if women chefs aren’t seen in abundance, it’s partly because they eventually want to start families, which isn’t conducive to working in the kitchen around the clock. (Michelin-starred French chef Hélène Darroze said the same thing when Feast recently asked her why there aren’t more women chefs: “I have a lot of younger women in my kitchen, but unfortunately one day they chose the family.”)

Bourdain’s next question: Why are women overrepresented in pastry? Is a woman who chooses that path “opting out of the sub-moronic level of discourse in the kitchen or is there something else going on?” Izard said the first jobs she was offered out of school were in pastry. “You have to prove that you can do it all yourself. I felt that I needed to prove that I was just as strong, just as good, just as hardworking.”

Still, the Gastronomica article makes clear that even when female chefs find success, their cooking is defined in different terms.

So, if a male chef serves a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese, it is lauded for its “in-your-face,” “rich,” “intense,” “bold” flavors, while a woman’s plateful of the same indicates “homey,” “comforting” fare, “prepared with love.” The former becomes an aggressive statement, a declaration of ego, while the latter is a testament to home cooking.

Druckman points out that few people know that “Über mother” Lidia Bastianich is actually a part-owner in Del Posto and has restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

While Joe gets all the credit for the business success of the Bastianich family, Lidia is identified as the Italian equivalent of Julia Child. She cooks, with love, out of a home kitchen for her pbs audience and is noted for making remarks like “food for me was a connecting link to my grandmother, to my childhood, to my past. And what I found out is that for everybody, food is a connector to their roots, to their past in different ways. It gives you security.”

Even in California, where women have found greater success, they haven’t achieved Great Chefdom and are described in different terms. Vogue noted Suzanne Goin’s “Audrey Hepburn-like figure.”

On the Food Network, men are consistently portrayed as “serious chefs, experts, adventurers, competitors.” Women like Paula, Giada, Rachael, and Sandra, meanwhile, are portrayed as “cooks, not chefs; as pretty faces
who do easy meals for families or casual parties” — usually in V-necks, in a home kitchen. Even Anne Burrell, the only “professional” in the bunch, has to “dumb down.” (Except, doesn’t she cut a pretty commanding presence on Worst Cooks, just as Amanda Freitag does on Chopped?)

Male chefs are inherently sexy; female chefs, sexless. This assumption runs counter to the media-friendly women of the tv cooking shows that, by putting beautiful homemaker types on screen, reinforce the male-is-to-chef what female-is-to-cook identification. The defeminization factor is another byproduct of the frat-like culture of the professional kitchen

Then there’s the problem of the kitchen’s organization — it’s traditionally hierarchical, and women often get hazed harder than men. In addition, nobody cuts them a break when they’re dealing with “heat, heavy pots, equipment stacked to the ceiling, standing on your feet all day. With less muscle mass to start with, women aren’t generally as tall or as physically strong as their male counterparts. So, although the setup isn’t particularly friendly to anyone, it’s harder on females.” Druckman wonders whether an increase in the amount of female chefs would change all that: Would women reorganize the structure of the kitchen if more of them had the opportunity?

In her pointer to Druckman’s piece, Daphne Duquesne notes that women chefs are already working their way up, and the proof is in the Bocuse d’Or competition:

At last year’s US competition to select the American delegation, while none of the eight chef leaders of the two-person teams were women; three of the eight commis (assistant) competitors were women. The commis must be 23 years or younger at the time of competition, so it is wildly encouraging that nearly half of the competitors eligible at that level were women.

Why Are There No Great Women Chefs? [Gastronomica]
Where the Great Women Chefs Are [Gastronomista]
Video: Why There Aren't More Women Chefs [Feast]
Related: A Woman’s Place? [NYM]