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Lady Chefs are Bitches

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On Hell’s Kitchen, they are!

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Against my better judgement, I’ve gone back to watching Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. It’s the reality food competition brought to us the screaming British chef who loves to publicly humiliate his contestants. This week’s episode starts with a dozen piglets being let loose in the contestant’s living quarters. And for some reason (I’m not sure how this relevant to real executive chef responsibilities), contestants were supposed to catch those piglets and bring them to Chef Ramsay.

What’s worse is that next week’s episode promises to be just as outrageous, but in a sexist way. One male contestant, who’s just angry all the time, threatens to turn his rage on the women’s team, replacing Ramsay as the chauvinist pig. It’s going to be pretty upsetting to watch, but I realized that this has always been par for the course on Hell’s Kitchen. Women are not usually taken seriously and the word “bitch” is the most frequently used insult on EVERY EPISODE. Sometimes by Ramsay himself:

There are dozens of cooking competition shows on television, but it seems like Hell’s Kitchen might be the most offensive towards women. Gordon Ramsay is known for his temper and sexism, but he’s not the only male chef that we should be critical of and his show is only symptomatic of a larger problem in the restaurant industry. The “back of the house” is a boy’s club where male executive chefs reign.

This photo was recently posted to Fuck Yeah, Feminism and it’s an example of how representation matters. There are talented female chefs out there, but apparently not enough to show on television. Out of the 11 seasons of Top Chef (US version) there have only been 2 female winners. Every year, Food and Wine Magazine recognizes about ten Best New Chefs, and usually just one of them is a woman. I invite you to scroll back over the years to see the one (sometimes two) female chefs highlighted per year.

There is an admitted caveat in this reality television discussion: MasterChef U.S. is also hosted by Gordon Ramsay (alongside Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich) and since it’s inception, three of the four winners have been women. While this is great, it’s hardly representative of professional chefs who have climbed the restaurant ladder. MasterChef contestants are actually amateur home cooks, who win a cash prize and the opportunity to publish their own cookbook. I wonder if this is because it’s safer for amateur home cooks to be women.

The image of women in the home kitchen is a more comforting image and Food Network personalities help perpetuate that image. The women we’re used to seeing on television are Giada, Nigella, Ina, Rachel or Sandra. These women are more like franchises who sell cookbooks and single-handedly keep a network afloat. They cook food in homey looking kitchens that are similar to our own. They prepare comfort food that our mothers make. While these women make a great deal of money and have great careers, they belong to very different world than the professional chef. Men who run restaurant kitchens depend on the idea that pretty women belong in the home kitchen.

There are many reasons why female chefs struggle to be seen in this industry (most of these points are from the “Do Men and Women Cook Differently” episode of the podcast, Stuff Mom Never Told You):

  • Traditional Bad Boy Images: Anthony Bourdain blew the seedy lid off the restaurant world in his memoir Kitchen Confidential. The male executive chefs are generally known for their drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll lifestyle, as described in this horrifying account of being sexually assaulted, by Traci McMillan.
  • It’s Hard Getting Bankrolled: According to seven top female chefs, interviewed in New York Magazine, it’s harder for women to get the investors they need to open their own restaurants. Chef Patricia Yeo believes that women have a harder time negotiating what they want when it comes to money. “I think men aren’t as nervous about asking [for money]. They seem to be able to say, ‘Listen, this is what I want, give it to me.’ Women, I think, have a harder time with it.” 
  • Family Gets In The Way: In a collection of interviews from Starchefs.com, female chefs talk about how difficult it is to juggle their family life with the hectic business of running a kitchen. The days are incredibly long and not conducive to raising children. It is said that being a pastry chef is slightly easier on women because the hours aren’t quite as intense
  • Based on Military Organization: According to M.M. Pack, of the Austin Chronicle, the rigid kitchen hierarchy comes from a long history of cooking in the military. “From the 14th century on, traveling armies had to be fed; cooks were selected from among the ranks. During peacetime, rulers set up tournaments to keep their warriors prepared for future battles; the military cooks followed knights to castles and ultimately became the cooks to kings and nobility, orchestrating huge and complicated meals and feasts for vast entourages.”

But it’s not all bad news. In a New York Times article from earlier this year, Julia Moskin says things are changing. “In culinary schools, women have long made up the majority in pastry courses, but are now entering general culinary programs at unprecedented rates. At the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), the change has been striking: In 2012, nearly half the graduates of the culinary program were women — 202 of them, up from 41 in 1992.”

So perhaps this is an American occupation that is slow to change in the media. In a sphere where high ratings are based on stereotypical characters and misogyny, women still don’t have a fair shot of non-offensive representation. Hell’s Kitchen is still on air for a reason. People (and myself) are watching it for the formulaic drama. So next week, when that one angry male contestant starts screaming at the women, it’s hard to say how much Chef Ramsay will do to address the issue. After all, that’s the restaurant culture.

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Author: Charish Halliburton

Writer and Editor for The Motley News

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