You could have seen two famous female chefs on “Iron Chef America” last Sunday night, but you probably didn’t. You may not even watch the Food Network. But if you do, and you saw the “Women Warriors Iron Chef America Event!!” commercials over the past couple of weeks, you probably had the same thought I did:
How long could this event last? How many female celebrity chefs can they possibly find?
I’m a food fan. I follow restaurant news, I like to eat at fancy places, I read eGullet religiously. I’m happy on Wednesdays because that’s the day the Washington Post food section comes out and the day Tom Sietsema, their food critic, holds his weekly chat. I have been known to spend a thrilling afternoon in Barnes and Noble reading cookbooks cover-to-cover.
And yet, I cannot name a single female chef in New York City, the place where top chefs go to get their celebrity on.
I could name you a zillion top toques who are male. Thomas Keller and Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck. Rocco DiSpirito and Jeff Tunks and Roberto Donna. Anthony Bourdain, because he wrote Kitchen Confidential. Emeril Lagasse, because he won’t shut up. Peter Luger in New York and Charlie Trotter in Chicago. Local stars like Frank Ruta. Jose Andres. Tom Power.
Women? Off the top of my head, I could give you Ris Lacoste, Carole Greenwood, and Ann Cashion, because they have their own restaurants in DC and get a fair amount of press for it. I could dredge up a distant recollection of some woman in Boston named Jody or Jodi. I could tell you about Alice Waters, the fresh food pioneer at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. That’s it. That’s all I got.
So my immediate assumption, and I’m pretty sure it’s accurate, is that there just aren’t that many women in the top position at the nation’s most amazing restaurants. It’s like Hollywood. There are women all over the movie industry, except at the top. Actresses, stuntwomen, scriptwriters, editors, costume designers… but when’s the last time you saw a feature film directed by a woman? Chances are it’s been a while.
And here’s the million-dollar question: should we care?
Yes and no. Caring what’s on the table at Per Se and who put it there is like caring which two stars are currently failing to measure up to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the version of “The Producers” on Broadway: incredibly relevant for a very, very narrow segment of the population. For the rest of us, meh. Famous chefs can be highly influential when it comes to fashioning trends: the sea bass craze, the tall food fad, the current popularity of anything-infused vodkas. This is what happens in top restaurants, the places where people plead and beg and trade favors for reservations even a month in advance. There’s no denying that where top chefs lead the way, followers ripple across the country, mostly working their way in from the coasts.
But who really had the biggest influence on what you’ve had for dinner over the past 30 years?
Not a top chef. Not the proprietress of a bistro or restaurant or dining destination. Not someone working late nights in New York City fashioning tiny individual nets from imported radish sprouts to cradle a single, perfectly seared diver scallop over truffled foam.
Instead, someone we met on TV.
And that’s the really interesting thing about the gender of food preparation in America. There may not be a lot of women heading up restaurants, but they’re outnumbering their male counterparts on the Food Network pretty dramatically. Rachael Ray’s voice may grate on me like a microplane on nutmeg, but you can’t go an hour on that channel without seeing a commercial for one of her 83 shows. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. That girl with the tiny body and enormous head, Giada DiLaurentiis. Paula Deen. Sara Moulton.
Where are the men? Well, they’re on “Iron Chef,” mostly. There are shows like “Calorie Commando” and “Low-Carb and Lovin’ It,” but I couldn’t tell you the names of the guys they star. I can barely remember the Naked Chef’s real name, and he doesn’t have a show anymore anyway. If it weren’t for Alton Brown on “Good Eats” (okay, and on “Iron Chef America”) there wouldn’t be a single male-hosted show worth watching.
And that’s fine.
Because when most of America is deciding what to have for dinner, they’re not strategizing their way toward a reservation at French Laundry or Charlie Trotter’s or even Ray’s the Steaks. They’re making recipes from “30 Minute Meals” or “Everyday Italian” or “Sara’s Secrets.” I’m not making the argument that what’s popular is good –- I can point back to the multiplex as an example to the contrary –- but it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not more influential for more people.
Does this mean it’s fine that women are woefully underrepresented in the upper echelons of the restaurant field? No, not at all. That still burns my cheese. But it does mean that there is a strong foundation of women making delicious, incredible food that is ready to be built on to correct that problem. The dearth of female chefs is a shame, but it can be corrected, and hopefully there are women bold and strong enough to lead us in that direction.
In the meantime, I’ll keep heading to Corduroy to enjoy Tom Power’s incredibly delicious goat cheese mini ravioli, and the next night, fill the apartment with the scent of a roasted fennel-stuffed chicken that I learned how to make watching Giada DiLaurentiis on TV.
And I'll also be crossing my fingers for Ris Lacoste to win the Chef of the Year award from RAMW (Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.) Because she's due.
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Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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4.6.05 @ 3:05a
Let's not forget Odette Berry - Boston's very own Another Season who demonstrated from the 80's on that elegant food requires primarily the best/freshest of produce, and thirty minutes. Oh yeah, and Heidi-something-or-other from 4 & 20 Blackbirds in Flint Hill, VA (in the top 20 of Washingtonian's best lists for nearly a decade).
By the way, although not a chef, I have to give The Joy of Cooking (and the original author Irma Rombauer) some credit for at least putting my kitchen-anxieties at ease...through simplicity.
4.6.05 @ 12:57p
Good, basic cookbooks are incredibly helpful in learning how to put things together. Every time I try a new vegetable (celeriac most recently) I go back to the Fannie Farmer cookbook to figure out how best to cook it up.
4.6.05 @ 1:04p
The California AAA magazine just had a cover story on female chefs in the Bay Area:
There are many female Executive Chefs out here. I always love eating at their restaurants, because you have to support your fellow sisters!
But you're right -- there are far too many top male chefs, and far too many female pastry chefs in restaurants today. I don't cook or watching cooking shows, but it still irks me, considering that at home, women still do most of the cooking.
4.6.05 @ 1:20p
First off, let me say that I love eating and cooking and I do in fact watch the food network pretty often. That being said, the whole celebrity chef business is no different than the same prepackaged-brought-to-you-by-Pepsi-lame-ass music on the radio. There can be a female (or male) chef out there who can be making the greatest food in the world but if she looks like a sea donkey you’re never going to hear about her. Food shouldn’t have to be stacked 10 inches high by a pretty boy to make you want to eat it. I guess it all stems from the fact that dining out now needs to be a total “experience” rather than just eating a good meal.
4.6.05 @ 1:24p
Heh heh. "Sea donkey." That's brilliant.
True, celebrities in the cooking field are as manufactured as celebrities in any other, at least for the televised version. But I think in restaurants, it doesn't matter. There, it's more about getting your experience before you move up, and because there are fewer women in the industry as a whole, there are fewer women available to move up the ladder. Same as, y'know, virtually every other industry, just more pronounced.
4.6.05 @ 1:26p
And Katie, my absolute favorite restaurant in DC, Palena, has a female pastry chef, Ann Amernick. I have never not loved one of her desserts.
4.6.05 @ 3:25p
There are many good female pastry chefs out there and I'm not knocking them, because I love dessert. But it saddens me to know that women are often steered in that direction, because it's considered more feminine to bake a cake than to run a restaurant.
4.6.05 @ 3:45p
That’s actually an interesting topic, Katie. My wife can’t cook to save her life, she just has no interest in even trying. She can however bake like a genius. She makes amazing pies, cakes, cookies, breads, etc. I can’t stand to bake. I love to cook on either the stove or the grill and I savor the freedom of adding ingredients by pinches or handfuls or just throwing in however much of something I may have on hand. Measuring ruins the fun for me. Think it may be a gender thing?
4.6.05 @ 4:14p
You may be right, Dathan. I love to bake, and don't really like to cook. I like that baking is, more or less, an exact science. I tried to bake once at an ex-boyfriend's house, and he owned no measuring cups or spoons. I had to tell him that you couldn't just use a pinch of this and a spoonful of that to make a cake. It doesn't work that way with baking. He didn't get it. No cake for him.
4.6.05 @ 4:54p
Not a gender thing. My husband is capable of burning Spaghettios in the microwave (true - he actually did this.) I cook and bake - and my eventual restaurant partner (male) does too. He is more prone to winging it in the kitchen than I am, but I think that's born of neccesity. He's a lousy shopper.
4.6.05 @ 4:58p
Juli, I wasn’t saying that EVERY man can cook. Just that those who can seem to prefer it to baking and some women seem to prefer baking to cooking. Sheesh, get all literal.
4.6.05 @ 5:00p
Oh! No, I wasn't getting literal, but I did misread that. Nevermind.
4.6.05 @ 5:03p
I used to prefer baking to cooking but I'm now doing mostly stovetop stuff. Except for buttermilk biscuits, and they're mostly a vehicle for the sausage gravy, anyway. My boyfriend is also a good cook, and doctored a recent pasta sauce with tarragon and red pepper flakes that took it from blah to wow.
In the "it doesn't work that way" story file, I sent a (male) friend a recipe for cookies and he complained that they turned out rock-hard little balls instead of flattening as they baked. Some quizzing revealed that he left out the baking powder because "it was such a small amount, I figured it couldn't make a difference."
4.6.05 @ 6:04p
See? Boys don't get it. Maybe it's because I'm a perfectionist that I like baking so much. And who doesn't own a set of measuring cups and spoons? You can buy them for $1 at Walgreens for chrissakes.
4.7.05 @ 12:45a
After many attempts, I had to admit I am not a baker. I get by, but I'm very particular about what I can and cannot bake. Deduction in baking drives me batty, as in "why did this batch of mini-muffins turn out harder than the last batch, baked in the exact SAME type of muffin tin in the exact SAME precisely warmed oven on the exact SAME rack for the exact SAME amount of time?"
To hell with that. Gimme a gumbo that I can play with, doctor and improvise.
4.7.05 @ 2:29a
Tracey - I never understood the very same dilemma, but it was once explained to me by a chemistry professor that the atmospheric pressure (and humidity) plays an integral part in baking. Now that I am living in central Arizona, far from the temperature changes of the midwest and east coast, I can honestly say that I believe her - the lack of "weather" here seems to make perfect cookies every time! (and they come out of the same 350 degree oven nearly two minutes sooner - believe it or not) :)
4.7.05 @ 7:34a
Someone mentioned baking is a science. Truer words were never spoken. Atmospheric pressure, humidity, type of flour, type of leavening, ratio of fat to sugar, type of sugar, amount of leavening, amount of mixing--all of these things determine whether you end up with a nice fluffy cake or a Ellie Mae Clampett hockey puck.
For example--I use Red Band flour (a southern staple) for all my baking except yeast bread. It's a soft wheat flour and doesn't have enough gluten to absorb moisture properly or give structure and proper texture to the loaf. If you use a soft wheat flour for baking you end up adding much more than the recipe calls for, and the end result is not as good. I "import" Red Band from North Carolina, since it's not available in stores here.
I use buttermilk in several cake recipes, pancakes, and my biscuits and cornbread. Whole buttermilk gives a much better finished product than the low-fat or no-fat cultured buttermilk that's more commonly found in the supermarkets around here. So I have to drive about 30-45 minutes to get the good stuff.
4.7.05 @ 3:40p
All I'm sayin' is that the blasted humidity didn't change that much in the time it took me to pour the same batter from the same bowl into exactly the same muffin tins.
I do, however, love to bake bread. But you can forgive a little more on bread - so the air pockets are a little tighter? No problem. Crust could have been a big crispier? S'aright.
My claim to fame with baking includes quick breads (the holiday cookie/mini-muffin thing had to go) and I can whip up a mean meringue.
Speaking of female chefs, I do think there are quite a few more out there than is publized. I have names, but just not on the tip of my tongue. Broadcasters have a tendancy to show us Women Who Do Everything (Martha Stewart) or Women Who Can Tell You How To Do Everything (Ray) instead of highlighting real achievements.
4.8.05 @ 10:16a
My claim to fame with baking includes quick breads (the holiday cookie/mini-muffin thing had to go) and I can whip up a mean meringue.
I am hopeless in the face of a meringue, but you'd love my apricot-walnut rugelach.
There are quite a few more women chefs than the few I named in the column -- the article Katie linked about mentions maybe seven or eight, and at least six others in the DC area have been brought to my attention (Nora Pouillon, Jamie Leeds, and Gillian Clark, for starters.) But I think the accepted stat is 20% of restaurant workers on the whole.
4.8.05 @ 10:30a
Well girls. I am a male chef and Jael can cook for me anytime!! I just want to say that I've done a million fancy and cool dishes, but I'll take a Mommy made meal anyday!! Who cares if your meal is garnished with fresh herbs or fried leeks, there is something about a simple dish made with love that melts my tastebuds. Maybe it's a comfort thing, but the best meals I've had have mostly been made by women. I can't bake my way out of a paper bag because I would need to follow a recipe. Great article. Go girls!!
4.8.05 @ 11:19a
I wondered how long it would take you to wander over into this discussion! As a restaurant cook, can you weigh in on whether you feel the restaurant industry has a gender bias? I can only go on what I've heard, that it's a woman-unfriendly environment because of harassment and intentional exclusion. I'd love to hear that's not the case in your restaurant.
4.8.05 @ 11:50a
Hi Jael. The kitchen can be a rough enviornment. Stressful and lot's of swearing. Pots and pans banging around and sharp objects everywhere. It can be a little rough on a lady. Not to mention guys(not me)turn into pigs when a girl is around the kitchen. They act like they've never seen a woman!! Never understood that. I have a female assistant and I wouldn't trade her in for Wolfgang himself!! I also see to it that my dishdogs don't drool on her too much as well!! The bottom line is I respect anyone with a white coat on,and in my kitchen that includes women. Would I work under a female?? Of course I would. This industry is biased though. My Mother raised me a gentleman so I may not fit the norm. It's about art in food to me and everybody's welcome.
4.8.05 @ 11:53a
Oh yeah. You could write food articles for the rest of your life and I would be your #1 fan!! Wink,wink. Time to go feed my lovely customers.
4.8.05 @ 11:54a
We used to joke in the business that most people think the kitchen staff's job is to cook food, when actually that was their secondary purpose. Their primary function was to harass waitresses. Now, while I have worked with my share of sweathogs, I do have to say that the majority of the chefs I've worked with have been perfect gentlemen... which is in itself a little chauvinistic.
Am I the only one giggling that our resident chef's name is Cook?
4.8.05 @ 11:56a
Juli I get that alot!!
4.8.05 @ 12:47p
I assumed the Cook thing was a pseudonym. You know how dangerous that "Internet" place can be!
Just to follow up on that stat, here's the real deal, from a recent Washington Post article: "While women make up more than half of the food-preparation workforce, fewer than one in five is a chef or head cook."
So does that mean it's just a matter of time til the top of the business reflects the rest of it? One would hope.
4.8.05 @ 1:11p
I totally think it’s just a matter of time. People very easily forget that women have really only been a huge part of the work force for one generation. Most people in their 30’s and up had a stay-at-home mom yet suddenly everyone has their stuff in a bunch because women are under-represented is some areas. Given a bit of time it will all balance out.
Side note: I have a friend who is a stay-at-home dad, his wife busted his chops the other day about how “easy” he has it. Wow, took just one generation for her to swing around to the dark side and think that raising a child properly is worth less than her office job.
4.12.05 @ 11:15p
Washington is a fine restaurant town. Boston is too. Many of the top toques in Boston are women.I'll only list some of the best.Many have been nominated for and/or James Beard awards.
Jody Adams and Michela Larson run Rialto, Blu, others?
Upstairs at the Square, run by 2 women, 2 women chefs, amanda Lydon, Susan Regis.
No 9 Park, Barbara Lynch, also the Butchery and B and G oysrters
Ana Sortum of Oleana fame.
Lydia Shire- Biba, Excelsior, Pignoli and Locke Ober.
Rebecca Estes is from the area.
Only a sampling.
4.13.05 @ 6:44p
Jody Adams! That's the one I couldn't think of! I've heard great things about her.
4.27.05 @ 11:17a
Article here on a local appearance by Giada DiLaurentiis (the tiny girl with the giant head) in DC -- apparently 500 people turned out for her book-signing.
8.15.05 @ 11:57a
Cristeta Comerford was just named top toque at the White House. First woman ever to hold the post. Sounds like progress...
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