a bird and a bottle

Summers (as in Larry) and Science in the Kitchen
March 6, 2007, 10:33 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, food, news

herve this

Molecular gastronomy has become a big business. Begun as a science experiment with edible results and popularized by Spain’s Ferran Adria (whose restaurant, El Bulli (official site), is situated two hours outside Barcelona), molecular gastronomy has officially arrived in the U.S. Between WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne, Room 4 Dessert’s Will Goldfarb, and Chicago’s Grant Achatz, the boys of food’s avant garde have arrived.

And therein lies the problem. It’s only boys. The NY Times reported on this trend last week.

Gender differences in professional cooking probably go back to the hunters and gatherers — more precisely, to the day it first occurred to the hunters to award four stars to themselves and none to the gatherers. But rarely have the differences seemed as stark as they do now, when the chefs winning some of the most bedazzled press coverage in memory belong to a breed of culinary artists who are overwhelmingly male.

Why is this? Is it because, as Larry Summer infamously posited, men are just better at science? In the case of top chefs, it’s not only that — women have long been underrepresented in hierarchical, personality-dominated professional kitchens. One food historian says that foods made of gums and foams are just not comforting and so don’t satisfy female chefs:

“It’s not very nourishing emotionally,” said Ann Cooper, author of “ ‘A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen,’ ” a history of female chefs in America. “This is a huge generalization, but women’s cooking has always been based on nurturing. Tall food was a male invention; women weren’t doing much of it. Basically, women feed people.”

However this stereotypical view of kitchens and chefs doesn’t seem to be holding up.

But [Rosio Sanchez, 24, who works at WD-50] credited Mr. Stupak and Wylie Dufresne, the founder of WD-50, with running a nonhierarchical kitchen where beginners, including women, can thrive. “It’s a great place to get trained,” she said. “We’ve got total access to all the ingredients, and anyone with free time will grab stuff and try things. If you mess up, nobody yells at you, because we’re all trying to learn.”

Whatever the reason, it’ll be interesting to see what the fallout is, now that molecular gastronomy is becoming more mainstream and women are jioning the ranks of leading new food chefs.

If women do start showing up in the new technocooking in significant numbers, Gabrielle Hamilton, who provides unpretentious but flavor-packed food at her restaurant, Prune, in the East Village, will be watching with interest.

“Historically, when women move into men’s work it loses value,” she said. “Maybe we’ll see the pay drop, and the science suddenly getting called ‘soft.’ I’ll say this: If you see me doing foams at Prune, you’ll know the whole thing has gone down the tube.”

Hamilton is right about one thing — when women take over a traditionally male profession, that profession tends to decline in stature. Take secretarial work, for example. Men used to make up the vast majority of the secretarial pool, and it was a respected and aspired to job. But today, people would be surprised to walk into a white shoe law firm or even a doctor’s office to find a male administrative assistant, and the position has correlatively declined in stature. The job is not any less important (perhaps with today’s technology, it’s even more important), btu it is less respected at least in part because it has become women’s work.

Will the same happen to brash, bull chefs with big personalities who create even bigger food? I’m hoping not — if for no other reason than that chefs often work behind the scenes. But I’m hoping that in the 21st century, one place for women will be in the commercial kitchen, calling all the shots.

Hat tip: Y&M


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