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.

——-

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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