Is a Woman’s Place Really in the Kitchen?

chef hat

Even though I can’t properly cook an omelette to save my life (or, less dramatically, to provide myself a decent lunch), I love cookery shows. Can’t get enough of them. I’ll be any channel’s audience statistic for a shot of a mixing bowl.

previously posted about my newly-discovered adoration for The Great British Bake Off, which was far more tense and emotionally draining than the bunting and cute marzipan shapes suggested. Similarly, I recently became hooked on Masterchef: The Professionals during its six-week run. Where Bake Off featured talented amateurs, Masterchef: The Professionals (from hereon in ‘MasterPros’) saw 32 professional cooks battling it out for the distinguished honour of appeasing the taste buds of, surely the biggest wide boy on TV, ‘fine diner’ Gregg Wallace.

There was something that struck me about MasterPros, and I mean something other than Monica Galetti’s eye expressions (if eyes are truly the window to the soul, then I can only deduce that Monica’s is a cross between Captain Hook and the Chesire Cat) – that is, that there was a distinct lack of female contestants. Out of the starting line-up, just four of the chefs were women. And they all left within the first week, thus paving the way for a testosterone-fueled final. (And semi-final, for that matter.)

To restate my opinion on this issue, I do not believe women should be selected for their gender or to cover some nervous Executive from claims of sexism. The female presence on MasterPros is only slightly lower than the per cent-age (20) of professional female chefs working in the UK, so the show is a fair representation of the situation nationally. What I am interested in is why, given the old adage that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’, there so few employed in a professional cooking environment.

Bake Off finalist, Ruby Tandoh, wrote a piece for the Guardian shortly after the show’s finale that addressed the uncharacteristic vitriol aimed at the most recent series, specifically the misogynistic remarks directed towards the three female finalists. They were criticised for seeming either too assertive, attention-seeking, or manipulative, and even accused of being too thin to be any good at baking!

Ruby says, and I agree, that ingrained attitudes and gender politics pits “a culture of frilly baking” against “macho Michelin stars” and “real chefs versus domestic goddesses”. Women have Cath Kidston ideals to live up to; men get to watch the likes of Jamie Oliver and The Hairy Bikers making their fortune being laddish (and hairy). When thirty of the country’s best chefs were gathered to sample a menu by the three MasterPros finalists, it appeared only one woman was in attendance.

flour

So are societal pressures to blame? The kitchen in which women are supposed to remain is crucially within the home, where they feed their families and act out the vision of the perfect housewife; whereas a chef in a professional environment needs to be confident and assertive to make their mark. These traits, so lauded in men, are viewed unfavourably and with suspicion in a woman, as Kimberley over on Bake Off found out after she was targeted for appearing ‘cocky’ and ‘smug’ for having belief in her own ability. If women are repeatedly reminded, unconsciously or not, that speaking up often results in negative attention, it is not hard to understand why the thought of commanding a station in a kitchen and barking orders seems alien and unappealing.

Stresses of the job could also be a factor: judging by what I have seen on the show, professional kitchens are hotter and more pressurised than an Italian pizza oven. There is scientific research to suggest that women are more susceptible to stress than men, with the female brain proving more sensitive to a hormone produced during times of anxiety. This biological predisposition is not a weakness or necessarily a disadvantage, but whether it is always suited to the scenarios presented by a professional kitchen is another matter. Having said that, I could only gaze in awe at the all-female team in my local Costa yesterday lunchtime, as they dealt calmly, efficiently, and humourously with a queue that snaked out of the door. Perhaps we need to see more women showing that it can be done: many of the female chefs on television are not shown, or do not work, in service environments. Emulating Nigella Lawson seems almost unobtainable, bar the fact that she does everything in the comfort of her own kitchen.

And while it seems tired to play the family card, it is a valid point. The female contestants this year were still in their twenties, and I can’t remember any of them mentioning that they had children. Some of the men of a similar age did, and praised their wives for holding the fort while they took part in the competition. Arguably there are gender expectations here at play again. I believe it is still the case that a woman who leaves her children for long hours is more harshly judged than a man, with the idea of the father going out to work early and getting back late still a common conception of ‘normal’ family life.

The hours in a professional kitchen are long and demanding: one of the finalists said that he had been getting into work at 5AM to practice his dishes for the show, and then staying on to work a 15-16 hour day. Would a woman with young children be afforded this opportunity without anyone passing comment? Would she want to?

There is proof that it can be done: the aforementioned Monica Galetti is the senior sous-chef at Le Gavroche and quite possibly the best thing about MasterPros. She can most certainly cook; doesn’t bite her tongue when it comes to critiquing the contestant’s meals; and has a young daughter whom she clearly adores. She is fearsome, fun, powerful, and talented. I just wish there were more of her.

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