Why Don’t We Pay Attention to Women in the Kitchen?

Amanda Cohen
Amanda Cohen Photo: Courtesy Dirt Candy

“I see women working in restaurants all over the city,” the outspoken chef Amanda Cohen writes in reaction to this week’s dude-centric James Beard Awards. “So why aren’t they winning awards and being celebrated by the press?” There are, as she notes, two possibilities that explain the lack of the feminine in the culinary A-list: There’s the “women can’t cook” conclusion. And then there’s the other possibility, the one Cohen won’t even name: Could it be that the world of high-end cuisine is sexist?

As Cohen — not to mention any number of thoughtful, well-reasoned articles on the subject — points out, there’s a sore disparity between the number of women running kitchens, and the number of women receiving acknowledgment for same. (Nominal efforts to address the achievement gap, like last year’s Barbie-hued “Women in Food” James Beard Awards, don’t exactly help.) Flat-out sexism is almost never directly addressed in these articles, and so it is that the conversation tends to come back to wondering what it is that’s wrong with women, rather than what it is that’s wrong with the system. There’s the “women cook to nurture, men cook to win” line; the insistence that a cooks’ hard-living lifestyle doesn’t jive with the family oriented preferences of the weaker sex; and our favorite, the frankly ridiculous notion that girls just don’t like to play with fire and knives as much as boys do.

But of course, women can play with fire, and they do it brilliantly. Chefs like Cohen — not to mention folks like April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, or brand-new Beard Award winner Koren Grieveson — poke all kinds of holes in these theories; they’re as talented, badass, nuanced, tireless, and innovative as any men cooking today. And yet Cohen and Hamilton, who work independently, are largely missing from the breathless media coverage of all things food-related, and Bloomfield and Grieveson, who have managed to crack into the club, both cook under the aegis of men. Ken Friedman and Paul Kahan are emeritus members of the culinary boys’ club if anyone is, and their long shadows hang over their protégés’ successes.

The more a chef is written about, the more likely he is to win awards, and vice versa — so being excluded from the media-awards continuum hits female chefs coming and going. “Why would an investor back a female chef in a restaurant?” asks Cohen. “He knows that she won’t get the hype and attention a male chef will get.” Hype seems to be the key here, not talent: Women just don’t seem to come by it as easily as men do. That points to there being an outside bias, not an inherent problem; it’s a systemwide failure of inclusion. If Bloomfield, Grieveson, Hamilton, or Cohen were given the kind of attention (and subsequent funding, and subsequent more attention) lavished on young turks like Nate Appleman or David Chang, they could easily achieve comparable rock-star status. Even better, it would be without being ghettoized as “women chefs.”

Girls Can’t Cook [Dirt Candy]

Why Don’t We Pay Attention to Women in the Kitchen?