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The Chefs We Don’t See

When men get to be creative empire-builders and women stewards of tradition, a chicken-egg problem emerges

“The Women Men Don’t See,” published by James Tiptree Jr. in 1973, is a classic work of feminist science fiction. The story begins with a struggle for survival when a small plane crashes in the Yucatan (I am about to spoil this story entirely, so if you’d like to read it first, please do). The narrator, Don Fenton, a Hemingwayesque spy and adventurer, survives the crash, as do the pilot and a mother-and-daughter duo, Ruth and Althea Parsons.

Despite the dire circumstances and close quarters, Fenton is unable to see the two women for who they are. At first, this non-seeing is literal — on the airplane seated next to him, the Parsons are “blurs” — and later metaphorical, as he confuses their competence and bravery for a hysterical devious femininity. The story ends with an alien encounter, and Fenton is flabbergasted when the women chose to leave with the aliens and flee Earth.

But the reader is not surprised at all. Instead, Fenton’s confusion betrays how little he was listening when Ruth Parsons remarked, “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” Beyond that hopeless view of women’s lives, Ruth and Althea’s motivations are unknown. The story’s conventional male point of view implicates the narrative machinery controlled by and devoted to the Fentons of the world by denying the reader access to the truly compelling characters — the two women who have decided to leave the planet.

The story contains a metatextual non-seeing, too. James Tiptree Jr., the virile, enigmatic new voice in science fiction, whose short stories were once praised as “ineluctably masculine,” was actually the writer Alice Sheldon, whose decision to write under a male pen name was a reflection of a complicated life lived in many guises, none of them fully her own.

This is, we have been told, a watershed moment. Women are speaking out, being heard, and toppling men who’ve gotten away with atrocious behavior for far too long. The collective solidarity of women who have been victimized — and the largely female groups of journalists and advocates helping to bring their stories to light — is powerful.

But if we’re living in a moment of justice for Ruth Parsons, why do we keep talking about Don Fenton? In the food-writing world right now, the conversations related to #MeToo rarely touch on how female culinary professionals might reclaim their lost livelihoods and dreams. Instead, the question is what do we do with these men? The reckoning, so far, has not reckoned with food media’s reluctance to tell women’s stories.

Men have a disproportionate share of power in the restaurant world for a whole host of reasons — male-dominated networks, male-centric kitchens, men’s preference for investing in other men — but underpinning and reinforcing all these is the core story that important cooking is done by men. Our culture’s desire for compelling male chefs, and discomfort with women cooking professionally, helped give rise to the ugly system we can no longer unsee.

The fact is food media has been doing wrong by women for a long time; not just the men of the industry, but female reporters, female editors, and female readers, who share blindspots and biases that favor men. The rules are not rigged in our favor, but that hasn’t always stopped us from following them. They’re rigged even harder if you’re a woman of color, if you’re trans or gay or queer, if your gender is outside the binary entirely. I don’t say this to air my particular journalistic soul-searching. The fetishization of male expertise and skill in the professional kitchen is a collective inheritance, and we must dismantle it together. Otherwise, when this vital, terrible moment ends, I fear that we will cease to see women again.

It’s happened before. “Early in my career, in the ’70s and ’80s, I did a lot of pieces for both New West and the Los Angeles Times that [said] the time of the woman chef is coming,” says writer, editor, and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. “Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, a woman who we’ve all forgotten called Wendy Little, Mary Sue [Milliken] and Susan [Feniger], Evan Kleiman — we really thought everything was going to change. Their stories were horrendous, what they had gone through: It was one horrible French chef after another who didn’t want them in the kitchen. And then I was disappointed when it didn’t happen.”

Instead, the rise of chef culture in the late 1990s was accompanied by a retrenchment of the restaurant kitchen boys’ club, both by macho “bad boy” chefs and a media that lionized them as leaders of the new food renaissance. (The trope has been used to glorify everyone from Marco Pierre White to Anthony Bourdain to David Chang; it’s pervasive enough as cultural shorthand that even fictional chefs get the “bad boy” treatment.)

“Men tended to get described by press as iconoclasts who are challenging paradigms and revolutionizing food,” sociologist Deborah Harris says. “They were portrayed as perfectionists with incredible high standards who won’t apologize, and businessmen who build empires.” This boys’ club attitude fomented an abusive culture — and the image of the perfectionistic iconoclast could serve as a cover story for much darker behavior. As the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner observed, Mario Batali’s public image as a libidinous gourmand, a potent, Falstaffian myth, muddied the chef’s publicly bad behavior (such as that chronicled in Bill Buford’s Heat), and helped to cover up private misconduct.

The vital narrative correction occurring right now in food media, thanks to the women speaking out and the journalists investigating, is ripping the “bad boy” mask off of mere bad men.

In a 2015 book about the multifarious obstacles facing female chefs, Taking the Heat, Harris and co-author Patti Giuffre dedicate an entire chapter to media bias. In an analysis of 2,206 reviews and chef profiles — arguably the coverage that has the power to actually shape careers — from four publications, Gourmet, Food & Wine, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, over the years 2004 to 2009, Harris and Giuffre found that 11 percent were dedicated to women, while 12 percent featured a mix of men and women. The remaining 1,727 articles were focused solely on male chefs, an imbalance that persisted far after 2009 — through Time magazine’s 2013 “Gods of Foodcontroversy to late 2017, when men still dominated festivals, awards, and prestige media coverage.

This analysis doesn’t expose a nebulous cabal of “the media” just making shit up to benefit white guys: Reviews strive to assess important restaurants, and features to tell compelling stories. Bias lives instead in the criteria for whose restaurants are important, and whose stories are compelling; the qualities of “greatness” or “genius” are both explicitly and implicitly gendered. (In a 2013 interview with Eater, Time’s “Gods of Food” editor Howard Chua-Eoan failed to see this potential bias, considering the goals of his project and challenging the male domination of restaurants as mutually exclusive: “This story, this package is about influence,” he said. “It’s not about the social and gender roles in the world of haute cuisine.”)

In the 21st-century narrative of American food, women who had laid much of the groundwork in the ’70s and ’80s were sidelined, and few new female chefs were elevated alongside their male peers.

For the women who did manage to secure their place as chef-owners and nab high-profile features and reviews, even positive press diminished rather than celebrated their accomplishments. This is where Harris and Giuffre’s analysis supplies a piece of the conversation often missing from counts — what is the narrative machinery that pushes women’s stories to the margins? What assumptions cause us to not see their mastery and hard work for what it is, but instead to minimize them, misread them, or see them as blurs on the edge of our vision?

The short answer: Female chefs are stuffed into domestic stereotypes, and domestic stereotypes are shamefully boring. After coding those 2,206 reviews and features, Harris told me, clear gendered patterns emerged in the writing. Male chefs bust paradigms; female chefs dutifully maintain traditions. Male chefs torture themselves to achieve perfection; female chefs gently nurture staff and customers alike. Male chefs build mighty restaurant empires; female chefs allow men to build them restaurant empires, if they ever get that far. Women aren’t protagonists tackling unrelenting, exciting, inspiring challenges — they’re unthreatening, unassuming mother figures doing the best they can, and this is in positive press.

Anyone can be a great chef without an ounce of media approval, but those rendered invisible will find it much harder to thrive. Media coverage determines whose food and restaurants are the most important — it defines the chefs who define our cuisine. High-profile reviews and features, a limited (and dwindling) resource, can still shape the trajectories of entire careers and determine, implicitly, who is important in the larger culinary landscape.

“Being labeled a great chef becomes a form of self-fulfilling prophecy,” Harris and Giuffre write. Once you’re great, you keep being great, and you keep getting the press a great chef deserves. That glowing press leads to industry awards, and even better, to funding from investors, which is the road to career longevity — or just a dignified retirement. Without an ownership stake, you could spark, say, America’s craze for gelato and still find yourself with an unclear path to retirement, as happened to Meredith Kurtzman.

The gendered disconnect was especially poisonous in the period covered by Harris and Giuffre’s research, the innovation-obsessed rise of molecular gastronomy. Science, creativity, and daring reigned supreme as culinary values, and all three of those attributes are considered heavily male — often in contrast to more traditional, feminized home cooking. A prime example, excerpted in Taking The Heat, is a profile of Grant Achatz entitled “Comfort Food From a Rebel Chef,” focused on the chef’s knack for remixing flavors of classic, domestic American food, like peanut butter and jelly and shrimp cocktail. Food & Wine in December 2006 describes how Achatz updates his mother’s chili recipe, keeping the unpeeled green peppers, even though no chef in their right mind would use such an unrefined ingredient. The effect is to both humanize Achatz, portraying him as not just a high-achieving chef but a man who loves his mother, while presenting his mother’s cooking — and by proxy, all “feminine” cooking — as unprofessional and rough-hewn, invoked with loving condescension.

“There’s a funny repeating pattern of a male chef talking about a woman in his life, usually mother or grandmother, as his first inspiration,” Harris says about the articles they analyzed. The writer would then, without fail, emphasize how a male chef had surpassed this woman’s influence. Harris says, “They would always go beyond.”

For female chefs, if their mentors are their mothers or grandmothers, they definitely are not portrayed as surpassing them. Instead, women chefs are praised for being dutiful stewards of tradition. “There’s this idea that men are artists and women are mere producers, and we tend to value the more intellectual, creative labor,” Harris says. In the reviews of women chefs Harris and Giuffre studied, the highest compliment handed out by critics was calling the cooking “professional,” as if women’s basic competence to cook for a living might be in question. Or writers describe hyper-specific dishes or techniques employed by a female chef, executed with precision and no creativity. Jody Williams, in the March 2006 issue of Food & Wine, is praised for specific dishes like her focaccia and called an “amazing fryer,” while men in the same piece are framed as important chefs and restaurateurs.

When women do alter recipes, their innovations are described in feminine, minimizing terms. In a San Francisco Chronicle review from 2007, Jamie Lauren “dresses up” a celery root soup, and in a 2005 New York Times review, Amanda Freitag is praised for “taking familiar dishes and administering subtle tweaks, tiny inventions.” If a woman did manage to shift culinary culture, she definitely didn’t do it because she was a rebel, or a genius — she did it because she failed to take risks. A San Francisco Chronicle piece in 2009 profiling three iconic restaurants run by women suggests they succeeded by avoiding “gratuitous creativity.” One of the three restaurants is Zuni Cafe, where Judy Rodgers pioneered the unfussy, ambitious ethos of California cuisine, embodied by the restaurant’s most iconic dish, a roast chicken for two cooked in a wood-fired oven and served with a bread salad. Variations of that dish can now be found at restaurants across the country. Yet even that level of influence and innovation is seen as a lack of creativity.

According to Harris, these narrow expectations create a chicken-or-egg problem: “One unanswered question is what is the power of expectations, consciously or subconsciously,” she says. “If a woman is expected to cook a certain way, it might shape what they chose to do.” A woman who creates an unappealing dish, or serves an overtly challenging menu, might not get the second chance afforded her male peers. If her boss isn’t sure she should be cooking on the line in the first place, or if her restaurant is funded on credit cards and shoestrings because investors aren’t interested, there’s much less room for risk. Cooking with a goal of giving pleasure, not confronting the diner, also isn’t inherently less valuable — it’s our expectations that make it so.

The stereotypes female chefs navigate occupy a tense place between the male-coded behaviors the culture values and the male-coded point of view that ascribes those valued qualities only to men. Dominique Crenn’s challenging and ambitious cooking garners press, but the media has been slow to canonize her as the empire-building, risk-taking French chef she is. And Preeti Mistry’s equally ambitious drive to serve affordable, creative, high-quality food in Oakland, with an ethos that centers marginalized experiences and perspectives in the kitchen and dining room, gets far less attention than it should as an innovation, and a risk.

This is where the brilliance of “Women Men Don’t See” lies — Ruth Parsons and her daughter Althea do not embody stereotypical roles of “mother” and “daughter” familiar to readers of fiction, but they also do not behave like male protagonists might. Unable to fit Ruth Parsons’s behavior in a familiar box, Don Fenton fails to recognize her as his superior in capability and intelligence. To escape those roles, Parsons needs a spaceship. In an ideal world, this moment of seeing women would result in a new story about restaurants and cuisine that does not transform women into “bad boys” or elevate them as “mothers,” but abolishes the binary entirely.

Thoughtful, honest media coverage can’t do everything. Reichl says that while at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and later, Gourmet, she tried to find women to champion, but also feels that she didn’t do a good enough job. “I would hope we were not guilty at Gourmet as being not as enthusiastic about women,” she says. “We looked for people of color desperately, and for women. What we’re seeing now with the #MeToo movement, I think that certainly it was harder for women to get the opportunity to be in the catbird seat.” (It’s worth noting that only two pieces from Gourmet were excerpted in Taking the Heat as an example of bias.)

Reichl thinks the “women chef” moment of the ’80s died for reasons outside the media’s control. Women had no access to maternity leave, affordable day care, or other resources to allow them to run a restaurant and have a family, and, more importantly, in Reichl’s opinion, female chefs never attracted the deep-pocketed, business-minded backers who are the real secrets to many a famous male chef’s success.

But as long as women’s creativity is seen as whimsy, or their management is reframed as nurturing, these conditions won’t change: Women will be less likely to get the opportunity to run a business built in the model they’d want to see. The current media initiative to include women’s voices is admirable, but female chefs are still being asked to write about gender issues, not about the thing they’re truly expert in — cooking, entrepreneurship, culture. Right now, the stories we tell about women too often rob them of the exact status that would demand more coverage: that of unignorable geniuses and irresistible characters, who fascinate reporters and readers alike. The media, over and over, fails to see women in the most compelling stories we have to tell.

And not only do female chefs need to be seen when they do bust boundaries and demand perfection, but the media also needs to change its definition of greatness. Fifty years ago, greatness was classical French food, served on white tablecloths and off-white china; now it’s inventive, technically demanding culinary mashups on counters with backless stools; what if next it became boundary-pushing food, grown, harvested, prepared, and served by people treated well at work? What if media demanded that the working conditions of a restaurant could be held up with pride by its neighborhood, city, and country? What if a restaurant reached not just for a perfect plate, but for a kind of utopia?

This sounds far-fetched, but it’s closer than it seems. The best restaurants, the ones we truly love, aren’t lodged in hearts and minds because of a perfectly executed souffle or an unexpected take on gumbo. They offer a fizzy, undefinable mix of welcome, hospitality, and community fused with creativity — a chef speaking with their own voice. There’s a growing movement of chefs, many of them women, who seek to create establishments where the hospitality begins with the people who work there, while still cooking creative, challenging food.

That’s the utopian vision. The dystopian one, we’re already living through. There are many female chefs we will never see, because they’ve been driven out of the restaurant industry entirely. They were groped, insulted, assaulted, raped, or just fed up with existing by the ones and twos in the chinks of the restaurant machine. Tiptree’s story ends with tragedy, too. Years after her identity was revealed, she died in a murder-suicide, taking her husband’s life, and then her own. There were many, many extenuating circumstances, but one almost definitely was the pain of being seen, and not seen, in the world.

There’s little that food media can do to restore justice to the women driven out of the industry, beyond investigating and reporting on the worst actors and perhaps spotlighting those who return. But we can see, fully see, as geniuses, cuisine-redefiners, community-forgers, the great female chefs we have left. And we can hold the space for more to rise alongside them.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent. Kelsey Borcherding is a Kansas City-based designer, illustrator, and dog enthusiast.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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