On Cooking and Baking

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In my restaurant’s kitchen, I cook the meat. I am responsible for searing and then perfectly roasting that ribeye steak, for crisping up the skin on the garlicky whole chicken, and for cooking your fish to a mouth-watering, flaky perfection. I work with a large wood fire, with heavy cast iron pans, and chunks of dead animals.

A few weeks ago, as I walked to our back cooler during prep time, a farmer, dropping off his wares, asked if I did the baking– the bread looked so good today! He was smiling kindly at me, sure I was the one responsible.

In the culinary world, bakers and cooks generally occupy different spaces. Strictly speaking, baking is a subset of cooking. The distinction is small: baking refers to using dry heat, like an oven, and, generally, leavening agents and flour. Because it so often involves desserts in addition to breads, it is frequently lumped together with sweet pastries.

Baking is an incredible art. It requires a deeper understanding of chemistry and a closer eye for detail than cooking. For me, the slim margin of error is intimidating; you cannot change dough once you’ve started the chemical reaction to turn it into bread. There is no last minute adjustment of the seasoning or sauce. The dough was either made and formed correctly, or it will not turn into that perfect loaf of bread. It requires detailed knowledge, an intense familiarity, and patience.

Most pastry chefs are women. This statistic starts from culinary school pastry courses and continues in restaurant kitchens. And most restaurant line cooks are men (even though many general culinary school programs have finally approached parity in enrollment). This farmer’s mistake is not groundless. As the only woman he sees in this kitchen, statistically, it is entirely likely that I baked the bread.

There are many explanations offered for why the art of baking is so dominated by women, while all other aspects of cooking are male-dominated. People point to the psychological appeal of measurements and precision, the differing work schedules, and the demands and pace of the job. I also think about the historical momentum– pastry has always been an afterthought, secondary to the main courses. The pay reflected baking’s ancillary position. These less prestigious jobs were available to women when they started working in professional kitchens, and the association has lingered.

Up until this point in my career, I’ve been studiously avoiding doing the baking. On some level, I’m afraid that once I cross into the pastry kitchen, I won’t be allowed back near the grill. I am already so frequently cornered– applying for line cook jobs, I am asked during the interview, “but… are you interested in pastry?” In kitchens, I’ve been given the dumpling-rolling prep, or cracker dough, because I have “the hands” for it (possible translation: delicate little lady fingers).

When I am mistaken for the baker, my first reaction is defensive: “I don’t bake, I cook meat!” Afraid to be cornered into a role based on my gender, I, too, fall into the trap of diminishing the importance of a baker. I rank baking as inferior to cooking, and, implicitly, the craft associated with women as inferior to the craft associated with men.

But baking and cooking are two genres of the same culinary art, intertwined and both essential to the other. Both demand discipline and experience, creativity and commitment. These crafts have become gendered through our social lens. But there is nothing inherent in these occupations that follows a gender stereotype divide. There is momentum in stereotypes and conventions, but there is also more flexibility in the industry than ever.

Maybe someday that farmer won’t be able to tell if I’m the baker or the butcher.

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