Seeing the Gorilla in the Kitchen

A few years ago, Time magazine published a now-infamous cover article about the “Gods of Food”. It quickly became controversial for a notable omission: while some women were profiled for their roles as activists or businesswomen, no female chefs were included in the article. Even the detailed chef family tree, mapping famous chefs and their spheres of culinary influence, consisted of only male chefs.

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Courtesy of Time Magazine

Immediately, there were think pieces, discussions with the editor, interviews with famous female and male chefs, and alternative lists published. In further interviews, the author, Howard Chua-Eoan, revealed that he was aware that there were no women on the list, but that he saw that as a reflection of the industry, not of his coverage. They, “did not want to fill a quota of a woman chef. We wanted to go with reputation and influence.”

I’m not interested in debating the particulars of the article’s culinary merits. Time, as established of a news publication as it is, is not a leading voice in the culinary world; it is not an authority. No chef or restaurateur is checking Time magazine for rankings, reviews, or critiques of trends or culinary traditions.

The fact that Time doesn’t specialize or hold much prestige in the culinary world makes the list even more fascinating to me. While the Time team certainly included people who knew about food, the article was meant to explore influence, rather than hand out culinary accolades. It was coming from a journalist’s point of view, chronicling people thought to impact our food on a broad cultural or economic level. The Time team presumably spent months researching and debating these diverse figures and their significance.

And, at the end of it all, they did not find any female chefs as having noteworthy influence. They saw, and included, only male chefs.

In a post-article interview with Eater, when asked if the media plays a role in the gender gap of famous chefs, Chua-Eoan claims, “I don’t think the media has to advocate for anything.” He somewhat retracts his statement a question later, clarifying that if female chefs advocate for themselves and cause the news media to pay attention, they’ll “cover it”.

Chua-Eoan’s statements make me think of the infamous basketball/gorilla experiment from the late 90s. Psychologists asked subjects to watch a short video and count the number of times basketball players wearing white shirts in the group passed the ball. Halfway through the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks in the middle of the group and pounds her chest, and then walks off camera. Afterwards, when asked if they saw anything unusual, researchers found that about half of the participants hadn’t noticed the gorilla.

This particular study focused on what psychologists called “inattentional blindness”, or a psychological lack of attention to certain visuals that are in plain sight. Something that is unexpected, or beyond our scope of attention, can go unnoticed. There are a ton of related concepts in psychology, from implicit bias to unconscious discrimination: our intuition, or expectations, can affect how we perceive the world, even if we believe we are being objective.

We tend to see what we are already looking for. This is true of you and me, and it is true of journalists. It’s in my language, when I refer to chefs as “he” before I know their gender, and it’s in a news article, where those chefs deemed “influential” all come from a particular demographic.

Journalists play a role in shaping and defining narratives. They are public figures. Perhaps more than most, they are obligated to question their intentions and biases. If they don’t believe that they need to advocate for anything, they are forgetting that by producing content to be consumed, they are already advocating for something. They are already influencing the public discourse.

I don’t want there to be a category for “female chefs” and I don’t want there to be a quota. As I’ve argued before, cooking is not a gender-specific task, and gender shouldn’t be an important factor in deciding awards or merits. However, when there is such a slant in media coverage, we would do best to ask ourselves- is this because of the reality of the industry, or is there a bias influencing the people we choose to cover?

The women chefs are the gorilla on the basketball court, running around while the other players pass the ball back and forth and get all of the attention. If you associate great chefs with male chefs, as has been the trend in recent times, you will see great male chefs. The women doing the work, who may not look, talk, or present in the same way, will fade into the background.

Where are the female chefs? They’re out there. They’re doing the work that isn’t profiled in the magazine, isn’t “godly”, isn’t exactly what picture in your mind when someone says “chef”. They are running different kinds of kitchens, in different areas, doing different food. They exist. And they’re already doing the work.

It’s time to see them.

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Footnote: This article is a few years old, and there have been many relevant and compelling pieces written since. In a way, the debate around the article provided the “huge stir” about gender in haute cuisine that Chua-Eoan insisted wasn’t there to cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t point toward my favorite response, a submission from Gabrielle Hamilton (also one of my favorite chefs) to The New York Times’ Room for Debate section.

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Sorry, All Out

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It’s a Saturday night, and you’re on the most special of dates. You two saw a show, so you made your reservation at the restaurant for a bit later in the evening. When you sit down and glance at the menu, the fish dish catches your eye. You put the menu down, already decided on your dinner.

The server comes over, and gives his opening speech. You hear about his recommendations, the wine by the glass, and finally, he informs you that unfortunately, the kitchen has run out of that fish dish you had been eyeing the moment before.

The kitchen has run out of the fish? What? What kind of restaurant is this?

As I’m going to argue, probably a good one.

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Selling food can be a logistical nightmare. Food products have a range of limited shelf lives, and the peak time to sell something can be quite narrow.

The better the restaurant is, the fresher and more perishable most of the product is. Those tomatoes only keep their firm texture and sweet crunch for a few days after they come from the farm, and that arugula started to wilt the moment it was harvested. If a restaurant is getting the freshest fish, they are probably getting shipments every few days, trying to minimize the time between the catch, the filleting, and the actual cooking for your plate.

There are also items that are prepared far in advance for your plate: the sauces that simmer for hours on the stove, right next to the long-braised greens and the slow-cooked pork shoulder. These are components that may have an extended shelf life in the cooler or freezer, but must be prepared far in advance of your dinner order, and used quickly to maintain their peak flavors.

Fresh and prepared ingredients contain a lot of a restaurant’s profit, because they are what the restaurant is selling. If the pork goes bad, that is profit souring. If there are items that are old and need to be thrown out, those are potential sales that have been wasted. Restaurants try to avoid food waste as much as possible.

Large corporate restaurants, with thousands of dollars in sales and sizable, stable menus, can somewhat hedge their bets against food waste. They have large amounts of diner data and streamlined systems for serving food. But for small, independent restaurants with changing menus and relatively tighter margins, this is harder to do.

Any restaurant faces the same unpredictable element: you, the diner, can walk in the door and order anything off the menu. An experienced chef can guess what will be a big seller, based on the clientele, the time of the year, the weather, or the past records. It is also possible to steer the customer through the menu phrasing, pricing, or recommendations by the server.

But the dining public is unpredictable, and the chef is left with a guessing game. The kitchen is trying to overestimate the ingredients needed to serve an entire dining room full of unknown people, but by the minimum amount possible. Over-preparation is expected, but minimized, as cooks try to estimate and prepare only for the maximum amount of particular dishes they think will sell a night.

Sometimes, there is a miscalculation: the chef didn’t anticipate the weather change, or the imperceptible shift in public opinion. Suddenly, it’s Saturday night, and even though the fish dish has been selling miserably for two straight weeks, the entire dining room has become enchanted. Fish dish after fish dish order rolls in, and the cooks are scurrying around, eyeing their depleted ingredients.

This is when you, the average diner, hears that we are out of the fish dish tonight, terribly sorry. And this is when I humbly urge you, the average diner, to stay calm and try to understand.

(First, a small caveat about timing- if it is late on a Saturday, for example, the last day of the week’s dinner service for many restaurants, the shortage is probably the result of the chef making a miscalculation on inventory. However, if it is 6pm on a Friday, which is usually when at restaurant is most heavily stocked with ingredients, something else has most likely gone wrong. Perhaps a purveyor forgot to include that week’s beef delivery, or there was a break in the supply chain. I’ve also witnessed a nightmare slow-motion spilling of an entire tray of prepared porchetta onto the kitchen floor, minutes after Friday service started, causing that dish to be taken off of the menu for the night.)

No chef wants to take an item off of the menu and limit diner choices. It does not reflect well on the restaurant. But if it happens, it is probably because the chef is running a tight ship that does not contain a lot of room for excess. Perhaps the chef uses very fresh ingredients, instead of relying on freezing or half-cooked components. Perhaps the supply chain is made up of smaller, local producers who are not as blindly reliable as international, corporate food companies.

Or perhaps the chef, even at the best of restaurants, runs a messy, human business. Good restaurant owners, who are trying to run a non-wasteful venture that keeps food at an affordable price, will sometimes need a little flexibility. They cannot predict the way a full dining room will order any more than you can predict the weather (which sometimes heavily influences how a full dining room will order, but that’s another story). Things happen in a business that is full of fire, perishable items, and humans.

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So yes, unfortunately, the fish dish is off of the menu tonight. But the restaurant is still here, still open, still serving you the best food possible. Could I recommend the porchetta, instead?

 

 

Where We Eat

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Restaurants are everywhere- from the food stalls in Hanoi, to the walk-by pastry windows in Bucharest, to sidewalk cafes in New York. I’ve eaten at restaurants, on occasion, my entire life. With varying frequency, you probably have too. You’ve eaten food prepared for you by strangers at a mutually agreed-upon location, paying them in exchange for their labor and product. We all gotta eat. But, sometimes, we can’t always cook.

In the United States, people frequently refer to this business as the “restaurant industry”. To be clear: restaurants are an enormous industry, employing 10 percent of the American workforce and bringing in nearly $800 billion annually. The restaurant industry covers everything from the fastest food at McDonald’s to the slowest at Chez Panisse, and everything in between.

I work in a particular subset of the restaurant industry, the small corner of chef-owned and operated restaurants. I believe in the importance of these types of establishments: they are small, and independent, and they usually are the ones driving culinary experimentation and risk-taking.

But as immersed as I am in this subsection, I still like to eat my way through the entirety of the dining landscape. There is an entire ecosystem of establishments and enterprises designed to feed people. I love going to greasy diners, or stopping by to peer into food trucks, and I have been known to swing through many drive-through windows for fries. Every different kind of restaurant provides me with different experiences, and, certainly, food. It is worth asking ourselves: when we do not cook for ourselves, where do we go, and why?

The question is layered, and lies at intersections of class and culture and a multiplicity of identities. Feeding yourself, or your family, is an immensely personal act of consumption- when it is outsourced to a restaurant, what do we consider? Is it just price? Is it taste, or speed? Is it the feeling of the place, or familiarity of certain foods, or the convenience of a location? Is eating at a restaurant just an act of sustenance, or does it have a social function? Where do we go when we are tired, and where do we go to celebrate? Where do we take our moms, and where do we take first dates? Where do we go when we have a lot of money, and where do we go when we want to feel like we have a lot of money?

For most, restaurants may only occupy the mind when they are hungry- but these establishments occupy a large space in our society. These questions matter, because they determine what an enormous portion of our food system looks like. Your food dollars shape our economy and local life on our neighborhood block. Restaurants reflect trends and indicate our current realities. They reflect our priorities, values, and tastes, both culinarily and culturally.

What do your restaurants look like?

On Being the Only Woman in the Room

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If someone claims they are an experienced line cook, it is easy to test, because the skillset of a cook is a visible one. If you give someone a pile of shallots, either they can finely mince them, or they can’t. If you put someone in front of a full set of gas burners, either they can keep track of orders and flip saute pans, or they can’t. If you test someone in a kitchen on a hectic Saturday night, either they can keep their cool, or they can’t.

You cannot fake experience with physical skills, because the results are tangible. In many ways, I find line cooking similar to sports- there is a certain physicality to the skillset that needs to be executed, perfectly, over and over. I make that sauce the same way every day, I chop that squash into obsessively uniform pieces, and I season that steak consistently every time. I cook grouper perfectly on a slow Tuesday night when the staff is barebones and everyone is yawning, and I cook grouper perfectly on a hectic Saturday night when the kitchen is literally going up in flames. Great Chefs may argue over minute details and artistic vision, but when it comes to line cooking, the cook has either executed the dish exactly as shown, or has not.

The skills of a line cook are learned, for the most part, through sheer repetition and muscle memory. You cannot filet a fish well unless you have done it dozens of times. When you cook steaks enough, the timing becomes a physical intuition, and you start feeling in your gut when it is finished. And flipping saute pans is lot like juggling, requiring simple repetition. All of these skills are based more on experience than strength, or size, or any physical characteristic. The hours are long, the kitchen is hot, the work is physical, but more than anything, the work demands tenacity and mental discipline.

So why do I work with only dudes?

This ineloquent question comes back to me, again and again, as I navigate the restaurant world and my place in it. At its foundation, the skillset required to be a cook has no basis in gender stereotypes. But I only need to look to my grandmother and mother to know that the art of home cooking has been traditionally delegated as “women’s work”. And I only need to look into restaurant kitchens to see that professional cooking is statistically and culturally dominated by men.

Even as barriers to women in kitchens start to disappear with dated gender roles, the general machismo culture of the industry remains. It is undeniable that women are entering the workforce in larger numbers, but the industry’s “boys club” reputation continues. At a certain point, I’ve begun to wonder if it is this cultural momentum that has a larger influence than the actual demands of the job. Restaurants, especially in the fine dining segment of the industry, continue to be seen as men’s work, long after generations of women and men have proven that gender doesn’t dictate skill.

One other question comes back to me, again and again, too: how do you shift the momentum?