A couple of years ago, I interviewed Ana Roš, the self-taught chef of the double Michelin-starred restaurant Hiša Franko in the Slovenian Alps, for this magazine. I asked her about the controversy that sprang up when she was named Best Female Chef in the World in 2017.
People complained the award was discriminatory. Roš pointed out that society as a whole was discriminatory: the male chefs she knew didn’t have to find time to make family dinners, ferry teenage kids to sports games or endure the condescension of peers saying, “Oh, your food is much better than I thought it would be.” Maybe, she reckoned, the award was a way of recognising a particular female struggle.
Roš’s dilemma described the classic feminist conundrum: all chefs being equal, women wouldn’t need to be judged in a separate category. But all is not equal. Restaurant kitchens are predominantly male; the percentage of female head chefs in the UK has been hovering at around the 20 per cent mark for the past decade. And according to the Office for National Statistics, women in the UK still prepare home meals twice as often as their male partners do (although the men do even less childcare and laundry). Despite this, however, the cultural and culinary landscape is changing, and the last few years — with #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the global pandemic — have accelerated progress.
“Chef” and “cook” evolved as gendered terms. One designates work outside the home, paid and celebrated; the other carries a domestic connotation. But the distinction is more recent than you might think. Chef comes from “chef de cuisine”, meaning head of the kitchen, a term that belongs to the grammar of the restaurant.
Women, independently or as a half of a couple, have always run eateries: pubs, cafés, diners, trattorias, taverns. But the restaurant — with a maître d’ directing waiters and menus with individual dishes — is a relatively modern invention, appearing in Paris at the end of the 18th century. And it was Escoffier, the father of French cuisine, who organised the restaurant kitchen into brigades with a military hierarchy and discipline — “Oui, chef!”
Women, historically, did not fare well in these male preserves, but there have always been exceptions to the rule. Eugénie Brazier, known as La Mère Brazier, grew up a poor farmer’s daughter at the turn of the 20th century and in 1933 was the first chef to be awarded six Michelin stars, three each for her two restaurants in Lyon and the countryside outside it — a feat that would not be repeated by any chef for more than 60 years.
Shut out of male kitchens, women established their own restaurants on their own terms, launching new trends in the process. In the 1970s, Alice Waters pioneered farm-to-table at Chez Panisse in California; Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of the River Cafe reimagined Italian food in London in an office canteen; more recently Asma Khan gained success at the Darjeeling Express in London, employing an all-women team and encouraging flexible working hours.
In home kitchens, things have been changing for a while. Twenty years ago, Jamie Oliver showed men that it wasn’t sissy to cook nice nosh for your family. Trace the trajectory of cookery books from the domestic authorities of Mrs Beeton through Julia Child and Delia Smith to the present day where our weekday dinners are as likely to be inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigel Slater as by a contemporary domestic goddess.
And as a growing band of female chefs began jostling the men at the top of the best-of lists — Hélène Darroze, Clare Smyth, Anne-Sophie Pic, Angela Hartnett, Elena Arzak — the #MeToo movement effectively put an end to head chefs in towering toques yelling, leering and throwing copper pots about under the cover of machismo camaraderie. Big-name chefs have been fired for sexual harassment; scandalous pay scales have been made public. The cult of the male restaurant chef indulged as a badly behaved rock star has gone the way of, well, the cult of the badly behaved rock star.
There is still plenty to do. But post-pandemic labour shortages have meant that restaurants are having to pay attention to workplace culture and work-life balance in a way they never had to before. Over the past five years, the number of professional female chefs in the UK has risen by a third, although they are still disproportionately under-represented in senior positions, partly because many with children work part-time. But women in restaurant kitchens are no longer novelties, and books, associations and awards are growing in number to support and celebrate diversity in all kinds of cooking.
Crucially, the French idiom of the fine dining experience has given way to a more informal way of eating out taken from many different kinds of cuisines — small plates of tapas, sharing platters from Chinese banquets, communal hotpots, Mexican street food. The absolutism of the toque has been replaced by a far greater democracy. Amateur Bake Off winners are now probably more aspirational and inspirational figures than top Michelin chefs. A diversity of flavours and approaches, as well as of restaurant chefs, is redefining dining.
And all of this matters, in part, because food is the ultimate soft power. It has always been an instrument of cultural expression and exchange. It has always broken down barriers. Because food is not just a metaphor — marmite pan, pressure cooker, casserole, Dutch oven, tagine, wok, cauldron — it is a melting pot.
Wendell Steavenson writes about food and other things
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