On Being A Woman In The Kitchen, But Never A Chef

By | Thursday, July 09, 2015

juliaMy mother comes from a long line of women who cook. My earliest memories were sitting on the counter while she stirred sauce or seared meats or took things out of the oven. At first I could stir, then I could grate, then I could chop. I grew up with her in that kitchen, learning how to season and taste and serve, just like she did, just like her mother did.

And, amongst all the women in her family, there is a great pride in being a good cook. In hosting and serving and taking things out at the exact right temperature, and making everyone in your home feel welcome and loved. When I first visited Marc’s grandparents at their farm, and saw the matriarch coming into the dining room with a giant roast chicken and potatoes, I felt at home. It felt like my own grandmother, bringing us a dish with a mix of humility and pride, getting to be the star of the show as she walked dramatically out of the kitchen.

But as my love of cooking has turned into a love of the food world – as I’ve begun to read the magazines and watch the shows and save up to go to the good restaurants with the multi-starred reviews – I’ve never felt less at home. The female faces are few and far between, and the statistics on the female owned and operated Michelin-starred restaurants are dismal. As our culture treats chefs with an increasingly rockstar-like admiration, we’ve never paid less attention to women. If you only consumed food media, you would think that every chef or restauranteur was a 31-year-old white guy named Daniel who either worked in molecular gastronomy, or owned an upscale cafe and patisserie in Manhattan.

And yet, throughout most of human history, cooking and food has been one of the only domains where women were able to own, experiment, and excel. We could be creative, and dynamic, and even self-sufficient. We could invite people into our homes and our sensibilities with the food we created, and tie entire communities together around our tables. It was a profound role that we had, in a world that often left us with few choices. Most memories we have of a family member in the kitchen are about a woman, or many of them, working together.

Tonight I watched yet another documentary that profiled a young, volatile, ‘genius’ chef working in an impossibly pricey and high-concept restaurant, another superstar of the industry I have no connection to. He’s light years away from my mother, or Marc’s grandmother, or the countless matriarchs who run humble restaurants around this world that are condescendingly referred to as too “homey” or “traditional” to ever be considered the best of anything.

It’s a tradition that has been, in many ways, robbed from us. Our contributions, as in so many industries, are always considered to be domestic on some level, an understood part of our lives and not some vaunted art. Every woman working in every industry has experienced her work being perceived as “just helping out,” as though our sex is mutually exclusive with true leadership, true enterprise, or true self-determination. We exist, on some subconscious level, to serve, and therefore the stars and the leaders of industry will never be us, even in crafts that have historically been our domain. Even when we are allowed to excel on a much more humble, local level.

I suppose it just stings a little bit more when it comes to food.

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