The Sanjeev Kapoors and Gordon Ramseys of this world have become household names. However, the list of female chefs has stayed inhibitingly short. From Instagram lives to viral Tiktoks, many chefs have been making their mark amid the pandemic by promoting their brands. Looking at a barrage of women cooking, feeding their families, and breaking the internet, one can’t help but ask. Why are there so many women cooking, but so few who have become household names?
There is an old saying which states that “Women are better cooks, men are better chefs.”
Misogyny in itself is not a surprise, but the invisibility of female chefs from professional settings is disturbing. For years, women have been told that they belong in the kitchen. So it is a bit surprising to see that when it comes to making food for profit, women are being shunned from the one space they were exiled to.
Naturally, one has to ask, “Where are the women of the cooking industry?”
When done at home, cooking is seen as a woman’s domain. Mothers, grandmothers, little girls, have been told for generations that they must strive their hardest to get that perfect round roti. However, when it comes to a career-driven, aggressive, high-profile professional setting, the cooks we usually see on TV, in media, and on social platforms are usually men.
Many people talk about and wonder at this lack of representation in the cooking industry when in 2020 women have made their marks on almost every other profession including traditionally male-centric fields like the military and sports.
Mealtimes And Family Expectations
It is a well-known fact that professional kitchens are tiring, harsh, and unforgiving environments. It is no surprise that cooking-show contestants break down on screen regularly. One of the most obvious reasons why female presence in professional kitchens is scanty is because of the assigned gender roles. The expectation from female chefs, regardless of geography, is to put a meal on the family table as well as the restaurant table—often at the same time.
Gender roles have long shackled women who try to focus on their careers. The modern woman is described as fearless, ambitious, and unafraid. However, the subtle ways in which she is pressured by society are lost to the masses.
Women are held accountable for their families.
Many kitchens decide to skip over a potential female employee. The reason given is often that high-level jobs require long hours and ceaseless dedication. Sadly, women are often perceived to be bound by familial ties. Taking care of children, cooking meals for the family, cleaning up after their husbands. We expect working women to balance work and life to a degree that men are not.
The general culture of overwork and systemic oppression has a big hand in the absence of female chefs in professional kitchens in India and abroad.
Like all other industries, the cooking industry too needs a re-haul in terms of its culture in order to attract more women into the space.
There is a suspicious lack of women in most professional kitchens. A lot of women talk about the hostility that emanates from their male colleagues. The resultant choice they make is to quit cooking for money. People deem women too soft to work in the fast-paced world of professional cooking. Maintaining elaborate kitchens in fancy restaurants is a job often entrusted solely to men.
Women have tried to combat this problem by taking on the challenges, but rising to the occasion might not always spell an easy victory.
Being tough and doing twice the labor as male chefs is not the answer. Power dynamics in the kitchen, as in any other workplace, has a lot to do with the low rate of female employment in professional cooking. Also, why the handful that has made their presence known is often overlooked. Snide comments, mental and emotional antagonism, mansplaining, and snubbing by male colleagues all come together to create a toxic environment.
Gendering Of Food
While there might not be a lot of women in cooking, many have made their presence known in the world of baking, pastry, and dessert. The history of food perceives meat as masculine but the pastry as feminine. Baked goods have often been called ‘feminine’ and ‘dainty.’
What makes this section of cooking womanly?
In 1898 French Chef Auguste Escoffier introduced a system of organizing professional kitchens in London which were very similar to the military. It was called the ‘Brigade System.’
Many have credited this system to be the reason for the masculine kitchen culture that we see in today’s time. Men often tried to differentiate their professional cooking from the homemade ‘feminine’ variety that existed at the same time. Years later, this gendering of the kitchen has evolved into a threat of feminization in modern professional kitchens. There has been a rendering of the kitchen! We have put the label of masculine and feminine on individual foods as well.
women are connected to chocolate while a man’s domain often includes THE MAIN COURSES.
This also has an impact on why women can carve a niche for themselves in the dessert industry, but still have a hard time nudging their way into mainstream kitchens. Despite that, the 2010 StarChefs Salary Report states that male pastry chefs receive 27% more pay than their female equivalents.
Flipping The Narrative
There are many women in the industry now. They are just not visible in the media that we consume. To quote Sridevi’s character, ‘Shashi’ from the movie English Vinglish,
“When a man cooks, it is an art. But when a woman cooks it is her duty.”
However, does this mean that there is no future for women in the cooking industry? Of course not. Many women have been blazing a trail with their brilliant takes on food couture. This has led them into the upper echelons of the world of gourmet dining.
With many cookbooks to her name, Julia Child has become a household name that inspires many women to step into professional hospitality roles. Anahita Dhondi, the chef manager at SodabottleOpenerwala has won many accolades for the brilliance in the field. She has introduced the hitherto obscure Parsi cuisine into the restaurant industry. Mitali Gupta’s Bombaykery introduced unconventional flavors. Le 15 Patisserie by Pooja Dhingra earned her the moniker of the ‘macaron queen,’ and Megha Kohli at Lavaash by Saby has helped the restaurant become a top-tier eatery in India.
There is undeniable sexism in the cooking industry, but with every dark cloud comes a silver lining. In this case, female solidarity is the spice that makes it perfect!
Besides, the ability to go independent and sell online has given many women both the platform as well as the flexibility they need.
It is time we start talking about the women in the kitchens again, so we can reclaim the space—this time, on a professional level!
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