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It’s Time To Do Something About The Chef Gender Gap

Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let's Talk About Food Festival in October 2013. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau

Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let's Talk About Food Festival in October 2013. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau

The noise (and well-deserved) flap over Time magazine’s recent cover story “The 13 Gods of Food” — a list that crowns exactly zero female chefs — is wonderfully opportune. I am thrilled by the zesty outrage it has sparked! A group of us in Boston has been on a mission since last spring to highlight the too-quiet media coverage of women who cook professionally.

Last May, Food & Wine magazine featured a double-truck poster ad for its annual Food & Wine Classic. It was a panoramic view of the Rockies with an elbow-to-elbow row of the usual suspects and grinning male gods of food. Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and director of special projects for Food & Wine, looked gorgeous and had one wrist’s worth of room. Presumably, Simmons was in the poster to show gender balance.

Boston chef and icon Jody Adams of Rialto privately emailed many of us “that it literally felt like a punch to her stomach” when she saw the ad. “After all these years, still?” she wrote in frustration.

Soon after, I came across an article in the July/August issue of Departures called “Cooks’ Night Out” that featured chic, duded-up male chefs spending 72 hours on the town. The article featured a sidebar interview with TV chef Bobby Flay that was markedly dismissive of female chefs. Ever since, an energized group of Boston women in the food world has been thinking about how to use these testosterone-fueled slights as a teachable moment to change the media perception — and therefore the public view — of what a chef looks like. (Hint: It ain’t all tattoos and muscles, though many women in the kitchen sport both.)

The gender gap is real — and it plays out in the media

In more than a decade of covering local and national chefs for Stuff magazine and the Boston Phoenix, writing hundreds of profiles and columns, I learned a few things about the difference between men and women who cook professionally. I’d guess that my coverage was 75 percent men and 25 percent women, and occasionally I took a little editorial heat for “overemphasizing” local women.

At the time, Boston had many more male chef-owners and executive chefs than female. That is still true today. But as a feminist, I used my humble perch to give ink to women whenever I could. How else to build profile and change perception?

Here’s why men get more ink: It’s easier to write about them. Men make better copy. Men are more willing to say outrageous and eminently quotable things. Shock value is highly prized when a journalist has a story deadline to meet. Men pose more provocatively and more humorously in front of photographers.

When you interview women, many talk about their awesome, amazing teams and their mentors. Male chefs talk more about themselves. For a writer, this is helpful. It is always easier to write about a hero or star than the loyal teammates. Men are better at claiming credit for good work done. Women, who’ve done equally good work in the kitchen, are more humble and self-revealing. As an interviewer, you have to work a little harder to get a woman to say something funny or edgy. But honestly, you don’t have to work that hard if you’re patient and warm. The difference boils down to a classic sexist stereotype: the cocky male vs. the collaborative female, the badass male chef vs. the uber-competent female one.

Chef Jody Adams. Credit: Michael Piazza

Chef Jody Adams. Credit: Michael Piazza

No one quibbles about male chefs getting recognized for their talents — good is good. But there is plenty of room at the table for the hardworking and very talented women as well. Women make equally good copy.

And we are serious about this teachable moment thing. In October, women in chefs jackets wielding baguettes like bayonets held a Women in Whites flash mob in Boston’s Copley Square during the Let’s Talk About Food Festival. The goal was to highlight the sheer number of women in the culinary profession in Boston.

More events are planned, including using the topic of Changing Women’s Media Profiles as an organizing concept for the 2014 International Les Dames d’Escoffier Convention, to be held in the fall in Boston. Adams is working with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School on the topic too. The momentum has only just begun.

It’s time to change the paradigm about men and women who cook. I thank Time magazine for making it feel even more apt. I am not suggesting professional women become badasses or men more self-revealing. I am suggesting that we who cover the scene have to be more vigilant about not falling into easy stereotypical traps. Some media training for journalists might help.

Top photo: Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival in October. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

  • belindaGomez 1·14·14

    Note the obligatory mention of a woman’s physical appearance. No one cares how Gail Simmons looks. And I don’t care if a chef is easy to interview or not–that’s hardly the point. The food is what matters, but the media–of which Gail Simmons and this writer are a part–created “rock-star chefs”, famous for attitude and persona, not for food. More women, fewer women–how about more real cooking and less posing for the camera?

  • Germaine 1·14·14

    Is Ms. Simmons a chef, in a restaurant, or a celebrity? Certainly part of the problem is that many men cooks and chefs are given media attention because of their looks. and I agree that women make come across as nurturing which translates to boring in the press

  • evelyneslomon 1·14·14

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…It’s been just about 30 years since I was one of the first women chefs in New York City. We thought we were the pioneers of women in the kitchen and that the future looked bright. Unfortunately, we haven’t come all that far. There may be a lot more women in the kitchen now but when it comes to getting their due, they are still second class.

    I cook out of love–for the ingredients I use and for the people I cook for, and most of all to make people happy. That was my philosphy 30 years ago and still is today. I believe that it is also the reason that many women cook today. Too bad that view isn’t sexy or controversial, or bad ass or flashy. It doesn’t make great press or great copy. You seldom get any credit for cooking from the heart and oh yes, being damned good at it. If noteriety is the reason you got into cooking, then I’m sure you can make your way out into the media and the Food Network–but alas not in your very own kitchen.

    Ladies, keep on cooking. Cook with love and with passion and know that cooking with soul will be more enduring than flash in the pan theatrics.

    from an older and wiser lady chef

  • L. John Harris 1·15·14

    Its complicated, of course. But as a man, living, writing about food, cooking and publishing cookbooks in Berkeley, California in the 1980s (Aris Books), it is/was obvious to me that women were the real creative force behind the entire movement known as California Cuisine (see my recent Zester article, “Heroic Female Chefs…” on the subject). And women chefs have gotten plenty of attention through all these years, at least in Bay Area, for both the right and wrong reasons. One book we published at Aris in the 80s, Women Chefs, was considered radical and important back in the day. But American gastronomy is usually seen through an East Coast media lens, so radical/brilliant women chefs in California seldom register, unless they are turned into saints, like Alice Waters. And even then, they are often scoffed at by the East Coast food mafia with their masculine Euro-centric haut cuisine perspective. So ‘right on’ Evelyn Sloman– keep it up. I love your rustic Nicoise bistro in Berkeley/Albany and would trade your roast chicken and steak frites for a high-end East coast or Mid-west palace of gastronomy tasting menu any day.

  • michele 1·23·14

    So it’s the fault of women chefs for not being “interesting” enough to merit an interview? You should get lots of support from Adam Carolla, who has spent the last several months explaining why men are funnier than women…. I would look at the food media as a big problem, including, unfortunately, the de-professionalization of the industry (that means you, bloggers). Instead of democratizing, too many of the new food media is reinforcing much of the sexism by looking for, well, sexy… Look at the ridiculous Eater writer (whose name I have repressed) featured on the recent E! reality show about women in food — she seemed to think her job was to flirt her way up the ladder. I don’t expect her to focus just on women, but I would hope that a modern writer would not focus on the men who charm her. The same behavior from a male writer would be a firing offense. But in an idustry where chefs are supposed to be “sexy” then who can interview them? Male writers would get slapped for promoting an image of a sexy female chef, and female writers are going for the male chefs? There is a good article in the NYT Dining section 1/22/14 about executive-level women in food — no sexy banter required. So it is possible!