For French chefs, inequality begins in culinary school.
The kitchen is heaving with activity—it is a Friday and we are in the middle of another practical exam. The steady sound of Laurent and Sébastien’s rhythmic chopping helps me hit my groove. I hear my classmate’s ladle scrape across the bottom of the large pot: we are out of chicken stock. I am under my own time pressures, but professional cooking is all about teamwork. I dispense with the empty pot and am about to retrieve a new one, when a voice bellows above the din. “Madame, those pots are too heavy for you. Ask Pierre to lift them,” chef shouts at me from across the room. I am easily lifting a stock pot from a high shelf and about to put it on the stove, when a male student follows chef’s order and pulls the pot from my hands.
All the instructors at my culinary school were male and they consistently told the women in the class to stand down, step aside, and stop cooking like housewives. This is when I began to realize that culinary school is for men. If this is true, what might it mean for the future of women in the profession?
In the US restaurant industry, woman after woman after woman has stood up to say #MeToo and expose the men who abuse their positions of power. Celebrity chefs Mario Batali and John Besh stepped down from their culinary empires after allegations of sexual misconduct. While this has made news headlines, such behavior is not news to people working in restaurants (Harris and Giuffre 2015). Ask any woman who has worked in a professional kitchen with men and she will tell you about the sexualized language, disparaging remarks, and unwanted sexual advances. Naming abusers and calling out the testosterone-driven world of culinary “bro culture” is a good start, but the industry also needs to address the structural causes of inequality in the workplace. Why have men dominated professional kitchens for so long? How has sexual misconduct become an industry norm?
Gendering the culinary body
Culinary school was my first stop on my way to doing fieldwork on gender and inequality in the culinary professions in France. I wanted to learn the language of the professional kitchen before going out into the field. I knew that gender imparity in the French kitchen is as common as a croissant. What I did not expect is that I would learn how culinary education is just the beginning of a long and endemic process of gender bias and discrimination.
The French brigade system, formalized by Auguste Escoffier in the late nineteenth century, draws on a military order that establishes a male-dominate hierarchy (Trubek 2000). The chef de cuisine is at the top of this organization and is almost always a man. Near the bottom of the food prep chain is the garde manger, a station where women often work and where cold food items including salads are prepared. At the very bottom is the plongeur (the dishwasher), generally a person of color or a migrant. Gender and ethnicity play a critical role in the structure of the kitchen’s chain of command.
At culinary school, students are inculcated into this system through their formation. The direct translation is training, but in trade schools, including culinary school, formation connotes the ways in which ideas, skills, and the body are shaped into something new. Like military training, French culinary education sets out to shape the male body into a precise machine to carry out technical work. Instructors see the male body as a strong, clean slate that can be trained to replicate their own skill. In contrast, women’s bodies are deemed incapable, weak, and unfit for culinary work.
My own culinary education was no exception this this dismissing and demeaning of women’s bodies and work. One steamy afternoon in the cramped kitchen, for example, we worked on perfecting the cuisson (correct doneness) of different meats. Inserting a metal probe into the chop, I pulled it out and tested it against my skin. It was almost perfect. I was finally getting the hang of this. “Please, madame, move over and let Jean finish searing the meat. It’s too hot for you here,” chef directed. Not only did the chef see me as too frail, unable to stand the heat of the kitchen, I could not possibly competently cook something as important as meat.
Women’s embodied knowledge is frequently discredited. The female body takes on forms of knowing that are collected unintentionally like sediment; this contrasts with official training and its forms of legitimate knowledge that men dictate (Wilshire 1989). Women’s bodies are even seen as a distraction. The often derogatory and abusive language and groping transform the female student or apprentice into a sexualized object. During my time in kitchens, male cooks often openly commented during breaks, the lunch rush, and pretty much at any time on the size of female staff members’ behinds, their eating habits, and their overall sexual desirability. Women must overcome this sexualized layer of degrading behavior and meaning in order to demonstrate productive value and competence.
The sexualized female body is not the only problematic object in the kitchen. The reproductive body can prove even more of an obstacle. During my apprenticeship, I was in the second trimester of my first pregnancy. This fact did not escape my coworkers and they let me know that they saw my reproductive body as an unproductive body. “Il n’y a pas de place pour vous, madame!” I was told, as I learned to julienne, sauté, and make stock like a pro. There was literally and figuratively no room for me in the kitchen. My interviews with female chefs who worked while pregnant echoed my experience. Not only was working while pregnant physically challenging, most women experienced discrimination from both female and male coworkers.
Finding female role models
The lack of female mentors and role models in French kitchens is a structural issue for women’s advancement. It starts in culinary school where female chef instructors are an anomaly and the number of chef de cuisine in top restaurants who are women is scant. Media and other popular representations of chefs as men—Paul Bocuse in his mile-high toque as the iconic macho chef—compound this grave underrepresentation of women in culinary professions. Most women in professional kitchens have to work twice as hard as men to prove their worth. Yet, hard work does not seem to be paying off for French women in kitchens. The 2018 Guide Michelin, the prestigious and influential restaurant rating, awarded new stars to 57 French restaurants, only 2 of which are headed by female chefs. Anne-Sophie Pic remains the only woman whose restaurant has three Michelin stars. The Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) en cuisine award is the other gold standard for achievement and only two women wear the coveted tri-color collar. Fanny Rey made her public debut on Top Chef in France, and viewers openly commented as much on her good looks as her culinary skill. She was named “female chef of the year” by Guide Michelin in 2017 (a title many women have protested against as exclusionary). Rey and Pic try to support young women but female mentors are still a minority. The French are not asking why women are not achieving in the culinary arts and with more female students attending culinary school than ever, this should be a pressing question. If there are so few women in the industry, who is going to bring along this new generation?
Les mères lyonnaises
Lyon’s kitchens provide an exception to this picture of gender disparity. The city has a long-standing tradition of women working in restaurant kitchens. Les mères lyonnaises (the Lyonnais mothers) were a group of women who came to prominence in the 1930s. The most lauded of them all was la Mère Brazier, who is the only woman ever to have two three-star Michelin restaurants. A changing economy and the expansion of the restaurant industry partly explain why women played such an important role in professional kitchens in this period. However, les mères lyonnaises remain an active part of local culinary history and they are important for the few women who continue to labor in the city’s restaurant kitchens today.
“It is not so unusual to find women in kitchens here. Have you heard the story of the mères lyonnaises? I see myself as working in this tradition.” During my fieldwork, I interviewed over 20 female culinary professionals and nearly all of them told me the story of the mères lyonnaises and it was always recounted as a way of framing and legitimating women’s work in kitchens. Although women are currently a small minority in Lyonnais kitchens, this historic discourse normalizes their presence and in many ways makes them less of a threat to the patriarchal hierarchy of most French kitchens. The mères lyonnaises straddled domestic and professional worlds: these women reproduced the model of the domestic mother relegating herself to the kitchen while her husband entertained the guests, while in fact a mère might be in charge of an entire brigade behind the kitchen doors.
In the 1930s, gastronomes and restaurant critiques claimed les mères as keepers of French culinary traditions, from lyonnais cuisine such as poulet de Bresse à la crème (Bresse chicken with cream sauce) to quenelles sauce Nantua (a soufflé-like concoction served with a crayfish sauce). Some women today still play this card. The younger generations of women who are on the cutting edge of innovation still use the mères discourse to legitimate their professional activities. One woman explained, “I may not cook the same kind of food as the mères lyonnaises, but I work in the same tradition. I am a strong woman in the kitchen. La Mère Brazier shows us that women can achieve in the culinary arts.” The story of les mères lyonnaises offers a useful trope for female culinary professionals—historic role models. However, this does not replace the need for new models of training and more female mentors.
Toppling gender stereotypes
While my fieldwork in Lyon demonstrates women’s ability to create new categories and a new order, this still happens within a system where women have to live up to society’s double
standard—we are called upon to be domestic goddesses and consummate professionals. The #MeToo movement has called out abuses in male-dominated industries, while the #BalanceTonPorc movement in France has largely skipped the kitchen. The depth of gender stereotypes in the workplace in France are strong barriers for women’s entry into and success in these spaces. The women who do pursue culinary professions must then suffer the discrimination that inevitably falls on those who transgress gender lines. Popular television shows such as Top Chef need female contestants that come in all shapes and sizes in order to help the French public recognize that all kinds of women can be chefs. Awards and rating systems like the Guide Michelin and the MOF must come to understand why women are so underrepresented—ultimately, these institutions should actively encourage women’s participation. In order to truly reach gender equality in the kitchen and in society we need to look to the structural issues that keep women and girls from achieving.
“Oui, chef!” we all yell back after receiving our instructions. I quickly gather my ingredients and begin prep work. I see that Gabriel is struggling to break down chickens, so I offer him a hand. He is grateful and comments on my skill. I feel glad to be helping rather than being helped. In Lyon, I was particularly aware of the ways in which the women I worked with in kitchens were remaking what it means to be a female culinary professional, one poulet de Bresse at a time.
Rachel E. Black is a member of the Department of Anthropology at Connecticut College. She is the author of Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market and co-editor of Wine and Culture: From Vineyard to Glass. Black is currently working on a manuscript about the challenges faced by female culinary professionals in France.
Løchlann Jain is an award-winning anthropologist and author of Injury (2006) and Malignant (2013). He is currently writing a book on vaccine development, and developing pedagogical and ethnographic methods based in theater and art practice. Jain maintains an art practice and is currently working on an extended drawing series on the subject of lungs. cardsthatart.com
Cite as: Black, Rachel E. 2018. “Gastronomie, Inegalité, Fraternité.” Anthropology News website, May 10, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.858