(Editor’s note: Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre teach sociology at Texas State University in San Marcos and are working on a project exploring the work and life experiences of women in the culinary industry. They have interviewed 32 female culinary professionals in Texas and are researching how critics and food writers help shape what it means to be a “chef” and how this can be gendered. If you are interested in writing a guest post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A recent guest blogger on the Feminist Kitchen asked a familiar question: Why has only one woman won “Top Chef”? Discussions like this one usually then evolve into asking: Why aren’t more women “great” chefs? (That’s White House chef Cristeta Comerford above, who in 2005 became the first woman appointed to head White House chef.) A lot of possible explanations have gotten thrown around in the press. Are women uninterested in professional cooking? Are women chefs less skilled than their male counterparts? Do women lack the assertiveness, aggressiveness, leadership skills and general fortitude that men have “naturally”? Are women discriminated against in the culinary professions?
As sociologists, studying chefs raises some interesting contradictions. When done in the home, cooking is associated more with women than men, but professional, high-status cooking has remained the domain of men despite inroads women have made into other traditionally male-dominated careers.
Obviously, it’s difficult to understand all the factors that determine why some groups succeed in an occupation and some do not. To learn more, we interviewed female chefs in Texas to hear about their experiences and reviewed hundreds of restaurant reviews and chef profiles to see how the media assigns the title of “top chef.”
One problem facing women chefs is the pressure to conform to the culture of professional kitchens. There is a fine line for what is considered acceptable behavior for women in this “macho” environment. Women described themselves as “invaders” of men chef’s turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.
As outsiders, women chefs said they felt they had to prove themselves. On one hand, they could act more masculine, such as “giving it right back” when teasing or sexual jokes were thrown around the kitchen. They could also take pains (sometimes literally) to demonstrate their physical strength by not asking for help moving heavy objects. They demonstrated emotional strength by not crying or showing stereotypically feminine emotions.
But the women had to be careful. If they acted too masculine, such as brusquely giving orders like men chefs, this could get them labeled “bitchy” and undermine their authority. Other women took a more feminine approach and a caring attitude about staff. They also “got their hands dirty” doing some of the less desirable kitchen jobs to demonstrate their commitment to teamwork. This made their male coworkers view them as mothers or big sisters in the kitchen — two feminine authority figures —but it was a fine line between encouraging teamwork and being a pushover.
Another factor in why there are few women head chefs is that many leave the career before they rise to these positions. Chefs work six to seven days a week, often for 12-14 hours at a time. The hours worked are structured around meal times, and many fine dining restaurants (the highest status chef jobs) are only open at night. Despite the attention given to celebrity chefs, most chefs don’t earn that much money and many restaurants offer few benefits like health insurance, paid vacations and retirement plans.
Many women chefs are willing to put in the hours and put up with low pay and few benefits, but if they have children, these arrangements may not be as appealing. Most restaurants are not going to have paid maternity leave. Chefs in restaurants cannot leave if their child becomes ill. Few childcare centers are open when chefs are at work. Because childcare responsibilities still fall more on mothers, it can be very difficult for women with children to become successful chefs.
Women chefs said they felt that they had two options: either leave professional kitchens or come up with creative childcare arrangements so they could stay in the industry. Several of the women we interviewed had left kitchen work for catering or meal delivery while others took jobs at upscale grocery stores and culinary institutes. Several missed kitchen work but found their new jobs much more compatible with family life. Other women were able to juggle work and family demands because their husbands had flexible work schedules and they could parent in shifts. Other women drew from strong family and friend networks to provide childcare.
Positive media attention can help make or break a chef’s career, and we wondered if how chefs were evaluated had to do with gender. To do this, we compared hundreds of high-end restaurant reviews and chef profiles in magazines (e.g. Food & Wine) and newspapers (e.g. The New York Times). There were some pretty stark differences in how men and women chefs were discussed.
Men were given credit for the intellectual and technical work involved in producing a dish. They are masters who dominate the food they produce. Critics rarely mentioned technical skills of women—they are more likely to be praised for being “hard workers.” Successful men are described as iconoclastic rule breakers (especially men working in technically advanced food styles like molecular gastronomy). Women, on the other hand, were praised for following food traditions. When men chefs achieve status, the natural next step was to start a culinary empire of multiple restaurants, cookbooks and media exposure. Yet, women are described as shying away from this type of success — they cook from the heart and are motivated by the caring act of feeding people, not personal ego or financial success.
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs. Our research on media definitions of “great” chefs tend to reaffirm the cooking and career choices made by men — even though our interviews with women chefs show they face stereotypes (sometimes even hostility) and family demands that make it very hard for them to reach the same levels as their male colleagues.