Thursday, January 23, 2014

Getting my panties in a bunch over media coverage of female chefs

Thank you, New York Times, for succeeding where TIME magazine so clearly, publicly, woefully failed. Not by writing a story about how few women there are in professional kitchens – that story has been written several times over – but by talking about how women *have* penetrated the once male-dominated kitchens, and how their presence and influence is only growing in the world.

The backstory: The internet and culinary worlds were aflutter back in November over TIME Magazine’s publication of a “Gods of Food” feature that neglected to include any female chefs. Taken to task over the lack of female chefs in the list, editor Howard Chua-Eoan dug a deeper hole for himself by explaining in an interview to Eater, that, "We did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef... We wanted to go with reputation and influence."

Cue female indignance, and every savvy internet editor (read: any and every other editor) capitalizing on Chua-Eoan’s fail moment to print their own lists recounting multitudes of female achievement in the kitchen.

But I have to admit something: I get it. When Chua-Eoan says that a Barbara Lynch is not as well-recognized or as well-celebrated as a David Chang, I get it... because aside from Dominique Crenn and Alice Waters, I, perhaps like you, did not immediately recognize many of the names that have emerged in the wake of the article's uproar.

I can name the renowned female chefs that have informed my own culinary sphere of course: Julia Child (I distinctly remember watching her make a hollandaise sauce on VHS over and over again), Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard's (maker of the best hamburger, per my parents’ world view, which of course became my world view), Judy Rodgers of Zuni CafĂ© (favored haunt of my dad from when he used to sup there weekly), Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Slow Food, the Edible Schoolyard, etc (it’s Alice Waters… there’s really no explanation needed, is there?). I've had the pleasure of meeting and witnessing firsthand the energy and innovative brilliance of Susan Feniger and Elizabeth Falkner, and most recently marveled at the all-female kitchen that served me a delicious brunch at Beast (Executive Chef, Naomi Pomeroy). My Top Chef addiction (and their wise choice in later seasons to seed the competition with many more female chefs from the get-go), has exposed me to more female legends in the culinary world, both longstanding and emerging, like Anita Lo and Stephanie Izard. I'm a slightly more educated than most foodie who now works in the culinary world, and yet I have to admit (though don't tell my boss!) that I struggle to name more female chefs than that. I'm guessing that unless you are a dedicated foodie or professional chef, you might also struggle to do so.

But, is our inability to name "big" female chefs with a widespread reputation similar to David Chang or Rene Redzepi or Thomas Keller due to the "basic reality" that there are fewer of them who have the name recognition? Or is it about *how* one gets their name recognized? That is to say, is David Chang really more of a "God" of food than Barbara Lynch as Chua-Eoan suggests, or is Chang’s PR machine, his drive for public recognition, his ego and machisimo -- in sum, his "manliness" -- more intrusive into the popular culture sphere than a female chef is wont to be? Yes, yes, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" has become passe. But men have particular traits, women have particular traits, and the system of public recognition (largely distilled through media coverage, awards, and festivals) tend to reward those who trump up their own accomplishments more, i.e. men. Men who want to establish a broad geographical empire. Men who are concerned with leaving a legacy, and being critically acclaimed, and seeking recognition for their genius.

People say that one’s cooking should speak for itself and that reviews and accolades should not necessarily highlight the sex of the chef. Indeed, some people think that by calling out the sex of a female chef, it's like saying, "This chef is great despite being a female." But, when Anthony Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential that the kitchen is no place for a woman, and you have to be a certain kind of woman (to wit: a man-like woman) to survive -- well, it just makes me put an extra pump into my fist when I see a woman being celebrated and lauded and deemed a culinary god (or goddess if one should prefer).

Because to me, the more interesting story is when a woman succeeds not in spite of being a woman, but *because* she is a woman. Because she cares about things like soul, and feeding people, and serving others rather than herself. In sum, those things that people so often decry as the failings of being a female, the reason female “success” lags behind male success. To ignore that one's sex, the way your identity is shaped by socially constructed notions of behavior based on sex, has an influence on how you cook, how you run a business, how you promote yourself, is to be as naive as to think that we live in a race-blind era.

Really, Chua-Eoan and the TIME team could have easily avoided this whole debacle by including some female chefs... yes, even to fill a quota. Up until Chua-Eoan's interview, I thought that TIME, as a leading news publication, would see its role not simply as telling people about the reality that they think they already know, but to push the boundaries and expose them to something that they don't know. Chua-Eoan does a pretty pathetic job of trying to defend the decision not to include any females chefs by saying that he thinks "media covers the industry. I don't think the media has to advocate for anything." On this, he and I profoundly disagree: I absolutely think that the role of media as gatekeepers and influencers themselves, is to push the boundaries and illuminate imbalance or injustice. Several people have commented that the preponderance of male chefs reflects that Chua-Eoan hasn't really been out eating in these restaurants and actually observing who is in the kitchens, relying instead on press releases and other media coverage to assess influence and reputation. Who is better at trumping up one’s own ego and reputation? Who tends to put money and energy and effort into making sure that people know their name and their influence? Let's be honest -- the men.

In the end, I see two failings here: TIME's failure to take a stand and be a voice for what this list should be, and a general failure to acknowledge that sex *does* matter. So thank goodness for the New York Times. For not being afraid to acknowledge that sex has a place in this, and that achievements and acclaim based on one’s sex are nothing to shy away from. For recognizing that the media’s role is to illuminate that which people cannot readily see for themselves, and to advocate for the world that we want to live in. And for the very basic ability to recognize that hey, women *are* doing amazing things in the kitchen... and have been for a while.

No comments:

Post a Comment