I’ve been thinking about the gender politics of professional cooking lately, having spent a few weeks at home with my family and watching Masterchef with them.
From a sample of two weeks’ worth of Masterchef episodes (plus a few backdated ones), it struck me that while the contestants seemed to be quite fairly balanced between men and women, every judges and guest professional chef that I saw was male. There’s wasn’t a single female chef other than the competitors. Perhaps there were a few female chefs in other seasons or episodes, but in a two-week sample and about eight episodes, it’s pretty disturbing that there wasn’t a single woman.
I started thinking about why this was, and what cultural stereotypes might underlie this trend. It struck me as unusual, because food preparation has traditionally been classed as a female activity and responsibility, at least in the western world. Stereotypes about men who can’t cook and women who prepare dinner every night for their children and husbands still prevail. Anecdotal evidence (from myself, others and the media) still shows that cooking is a woman’s job or specialty.
So why the massive gap between expectations and representation in the professional sphere?
There are a couple of things I can think of as possible reasons. The first is simply that being a professional chef is a career, a profession requiring a lot of learning, work and skill, while cooking at home is just another non-career job that women are expected to do and be reasonably good at without being seen as particularly qualified. And when we hear the word professional, most people still assume that the professional will be a male. So a woman is often expected to be a cook, but she is not especially valued for it – while a man who cooks for a living is a chef, a distinguished professional.
This ties in with a lot of essentialist arguments about the “nature” of women and men. Many television cooking shows emphasise that being a chef is a job that requires a lot of skill, a lot of creativity, attention to detail and the ability to take on leadership and manage a very stressful environment. These skills – particularly the last two – are often seen as male skills, because women are “too emotional” and cannot handle pressure well. One sees a lot more women than men crying and breaking down on Masterchef as well! This is not to say that being emotional is a bad trait – but in this case it is associated with women and disassociated with professional cooking.
Perhaps the under-representation of female professional chefs (especially those in the media and the public eye) also has to do with the fact that working as a chef requires long hours, often well into the night. In a society where women still carry the majority of the responsibility for child care and parenting, a career as a chef could potentially be very challenging for women with children simply because of the hours required, unless other parenting arrangements are made.
I’m not sure whether there really are as few professional chefs in Australia as Masterchef presents (read: none except for past competitors). But the huge under-representation of women in positions of leadership, professional cooking and food criticism is something that should not be taken lightly. Would it really be that hard to find a female chef with equal knowledge, experience and passion as the four male judges and the countless male challenge/guest chefs? Probably not. But as it stands, it seems that the realm of professional cooking as represented by Masterchef (and Iron Chef, and countless other cooking shows that locate themselves outside of the domestic sphere) is one where the patriarchy continues to rage on.