Women

11.14.13

Where Are All the Female Chefs?

Time magazine left out any mention of female chefs in its “gods of food’ cover story and on its ‘chef family tree.’ Ever heard of Alice Waters and Julia Child?

If aliens landed on our planet and picked up a copy of Time magazine, they would think that men do all the cooking in the world.

After all, according to Time, the “Gods of Food” are all men. In the story, featured prominently in the November 18, 2013, U.S. issue and on the cover of international editions, the editors of Time highlight the 13 gods of food responsible, presumably, for all of food-dom worldwide. Sure, the list includes four women, such as coffee grower Adia Batlle and anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva. But the only chefs included in Time’s pantheon, not to mention the cover photo, are men. And in the “chef family tree” there are no women. As in, zero.

This story’s shortfalls are only half the fault of Time’s editors. The fact of the matter is that while women do most of the “non-professional” cooking in homes across the globe, the job of “chef” appears disproportionately male-dominated—especially in the case of so-called elite chefs. This, in case you’re wondering, is the result of sexism.

An executive chef, even one with limited experience, commands a starting salary around $50,000 per year and it goes up from there. The average starting salary for teachers is around $35,000. Plus, of course (and sadly), being a chef is a far more high status job than being a teacher. And chefs can progress up the economic ladder, to higher-paying restaurants not to mention starting their own restaurants and more. It’s no wonder there are disproportionately more male chefs and more female teachers. This is how sexism and gender bias embed themselves in the structures of our society.

No Alice Waters. No Julia Child. No April Bloomfield. No Suzanne Goin.

But what’s more, the whole Time magazine fiasco reminds me of the fiasco around Paula Dean allegedly stealing recipes from an African American female cook, a pattern that has played out before. Jessica B. Harris, who has written about the role of African Americans in the Southern kitchen, drew an even wider analogy for The New York Times: “Think about who made money from the blues.” Even think about pop music, where white mega-stars from Justin Bieber to Eminem to Adele get rich by appropriating the musical traditions of African Americans. Throughout history, and across fields, white folks have often appropriated the concrete contributions of communities of color, whether by flagrant larceny or subtle cultural meshing.

Similarly, society’s spotlight often shines on men and dims the contributions of women. And often the men aid and abet this sexism for their own gain. And so you end up with a giant pile of men being credited with and proudly claiming credit for the entire history of professional cuisine. No Alice Waters. No Julia Child. No April Bloomfield. No Suzanne Goin. Despite the fact that I’m willing to bet most of these celebrated male chefs learned their craft from women.

Specifically, Dan Barber (#9 on the Food Gods list) was actually mentioned by the Time editor as a disciple of Alice Waters. So there’s that. But also, most of these chefs had moms. In fact, Alain Passard, Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller have all spoken about how their mothers influenced their cooking and their careers (even if, in the case of Adria, mom’s cooking wasn’t all that). I did a quick survey on my own Facebook page and out of 149 respondents, only seven said their dads were either the primary cook or shared cooking duties equally when they were young. Not only do stories like Time magazine’s erase the current legacy of fantastic female chefs all across the world, but it erases the deeper role that women disproportionately play in cooking in general.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a silver lining into which you can dig your fork, there’s this tidbit: Stephanie Smith just got a book deal. Who is Stephanie Smith, you ask? Why she’s the woman who made news by vowing to make her boyfriend a sandwich a day for 300 days to get him to marry her. One might use this as a cynical coda to argue that cooking only matters to the chattering classes if men are either doing the cooking or doing the eating but, well, that would just be too cynical, right?