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March 3, 2021

Who Belongs in the Kitchen?

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Picture a celebrity chef — someone you always saw on your television screen growing up. You might think of a competition show host or the head chef at your city’s fanciest restaurant. Do you have them in your mind? Ready? Are they a man? 

Now think about your favorite meal growing up. Who made it for you? In the sitcoms you watch on TV and in your elementary school cafeteria, who does the cooking? Do you have them in mind? Ready? Are they a woman?

This month is Women’s History Month, and it’s time we talk about the gender disparities in the culinary industry. 

Like most gender stereotypes, the image of hyperfemininity permeates our homes, our workplaces and our media. Increased gender equity might lead us to believe that these gendered prejudices aren’t relevant anymore. Nevertheless, the data says otherwise. In fact, a 2016 study shows that “domestic” women’s stereotypes are increasing. This is mainly because of feelings that men should avoid the roles around the house traditionally assigned to women, like cooking and cleaning. These shared mindsets tell us that even in 2021, the vast majority of heteronormative families expect the women to do the cooking. And that expectation holds true — in U.S. households with two parents and at least one child, 80 percent of mothers say they do the cooking and/or grocery shopping. Gendered stereotypes are harmful enough, and the issue is only aggravated by the role reversal in the culinary world. 

A 2014 study found that 95 percent of executive chefs (the ones running the kitchen) were men. The top five highest-paid celebrity chefs in the world are all men. Out of the top 20 highest-paid celebrity chefs, only three are women. All three of these women are white. Just like so many other professions, such as teaching and nursing, women make up the majority of the culinary workforce while men fill the most elite spots. This concept, often called the “glass escalator theory,” refers to the way that men in women-dominated professions are accelerated to top career positions. The stereotypes around who should do the cooking work against women until it comes down to cutting a paycheck. 

The media doesn’t fight our gendered perception of chefs, either. A 2020 study analyzed hundreds of images of chefs online and found that 75 percent of the people pictured were men. When women were featured, they were more likely to be portrayed in domestic settings. In her Eater article “The Chefs We Don’t See,” Meghan McCarron describes a “fetishization of male expertise and skill,” which prevents us from being satisfied with women at the forefront of the culinary industry. Popular competition cooking shows tend to cast dynamic chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay, whose intense approach to judging adds a layer of “legitimacy” that American audiences don’t find in women chefs.  Networks and kitchens continually broadcast men as the face of the culinary profession, while women across the country are thanklessly pressured into cooking every meal for their families.

Throughout history, many women have broken through barriers to create change in the cooking world. Buwei Yang Chao, a Chinese doctor-turned-chef, is widely credited for bringing Chinese food to America with her 1945 cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Edna Lewis, also known as the “Grande Dame of Southern cooking,” brought an appreciation of African-American Southern cuisine to New York City, where she opened her East Side restaurant Café Nicholson in 1949. In 1963, Julia Child’s series The French Chef became the first TV cooking show. In 2005, Cristeta Comerford became the first woman and the first Asian White House executive chef. As late as 2020, Roshara Sanders became the first Black woman chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America since its founding. 

Beyond the restaurant world, women are responsible for many of the inventions that we use in our kitchens every day. This isn’t surprising either; throughout history, the workers in a given profession are the most likely to identify problems and come up with innovations to improve efficiency. From the dishwasher to the drip coffee machine, women have been improving the culinary industry from their own home kitchens. 

Cooking is a personal experience for many of us. From our favorite childhood meals to our most special memories spent in restaurants with friends, food is often wrapped up in a million memories and feelings. It’s something to bond over and collaborate about, and it is the most common way to delve into different cultures. This makes the unequal culinary playing field even more frustrating. Anyone who is passionate and talented enough to start a restaurant or write a cookbook should be able to because at the end of the day, cooking is for everyone. 

In remembering the pressures that have historically been placed on young women to learn how to cook, it’s all the more heartbreaking to see so many women chefs held back from rising to the top. Further, the lack of diversity at the top is incongruous with the wide expanse of chefs of different races and ethnicities sharing their culture with others. Until the top chefs of the world look more like the millions of people cooking in their kitchens, the culinary world will not be as innovative or as bold as it has the potential to be. 


Sadie Groberg is a first-year in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at sgroberg@cornellsun.com.