When we level the playing field—any actual playing field that calls for prolonged physical activity—there is something to be said for the stamina of women in the culinary industry. As one former chef put it, "however heavy that box is, you must be able to lift twice it's weight." I think he was referring to the fact that women undoubtedly have to work twice as hard to get by. But the same could be said for any profession. In kitchens, women are expected to be smart and physically capable. We're biologically geared differently, but it doesn't make us any weaker. And since a lot of women have silently worked in this male dominated industry for years, I feel like it makes us less likely to want to be part of the game—the fame game, that is.
Since we're underrepresented, does this mean we should be automatically favored for more support? Not at all. But some recognition for the pain and compromise we endure would (at least) be nice. I hear the moans and groans from female cooks out there passing through kitchens, "I see myself as a cook no matter the gender," or, "the kitchen brigade is a team without sex." Yes, that's nice and all, and I feel the same way as a fellow female cook, but the basic reality is that it's fucking hard to get by as a woman in this field. You don't believe me? When Time Magazine printed their female-chef-less "Gods of Food" article, one of the many responses from the editor, Howard Chua-Eoan, "There was no attempt to exclude women, we just went with the basic realities of what was going on and who was being talked about." We don't get included in the game. (Or the lists. Oh lord, the lists. Make it stop.) If you want us to jump up and down to get noticed, you get, well, the TV show Chopped or the Rachel Rays of this world. For the record, I tried the TV route and I've never felt less like myself or a cook. When Food Network reached out and asked me to audition, they explained that they "wanted more strong female chef contestants." I quickly realized then that if all this hoopla and acting was what it took to get somewhere, I valued my integrity much more.
But I continued to cook and the media followed. I was on lists and in articles and I felt—at the time—respected by my peers and the public at large. I was also driving myself to the hospital at 4 AM from stress induced chest pain. Gender aside, is it possible to have a modest presence and get people to still want to eat your food? Top chef recognition or otherwise, is your food an extension of who you are? Can your Yelp-less, eight seat pop-up be just enough to take you to where you need to be? A commenter on my last article referred to the fact that as chefs, we are "whiney," and if we don't like "our current employment," we should, "ya know," not be chefs. I'm willing to bet that this asshole hasn't ever worked an 18 hour day while on his period in a boxy, ill-fitting chef coat while the kitchen floor is flooding. Everywhere. All the while, storing an 800 pound, two pallet food order away in the walk in refrigerator by yourself, cooking 159 covers, and pounding whiskey and beer with your male co-workers after your shift to save face so you can fit in with "the guys." Just another day at the office for me.
Yes, gender in the kitchen shouldn't matter. But for women who have worked so hard to be one of the guys, it's a controversial double-edged sword. We will debate this topic until the end of time. The real question is, do we care who recognizes us? Or do we just accept the status quo, pull up our boot straps, and carry on? When do we "arrive" as top chefs amongst the men who are already at the top? As women, we've already worked twice as hard to get here and now we're expected to have a media presence? There's no clear-cut answer. Branding drives business, and that cycle will never cease to slow down. That's something all chefs are dealing with. But you have to ask yourself, who's writing that article, who's reading those lists, and who's taking them to heart as the final say? Do you care more about becoming a celebrity chef in front of the camera, or putting your head down and getting the job done, which is the act of cooking? Or is it about being true to yourself and your work? I really don't know any more.
All I can say is hold your head high, ladies, and soldier on.