As part of my new-found hobby in cooking, I have taken to watching a variety of cooking shows and documentaries centered around food. Within these various cooking programs, many top chefs would romanticize the cooking of their mothers and grandmothers, stating how these matriarchs inspired them to dedicate their lives to cooking. Some would joke that despite their success, they never could make a certain dish quite as delicious as these women could.
Despite the homage these male chefs pay to the women in their lives, within the restaurant industry is a nasty reputation for sexual harassment. Lewd comments and sometimes worse has become an outrageous, but still very real rite of passage that female chefs must endure to make it in the culinary world.
“The culture of widespread sexual harassment and abuse in kitchens and dining rooms from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Ore., can’t be pinned solely on a few celebrity chefs or the rare, singularly powerful gatekeeper. It takes place in suburban chains and in dazzling three-star Michelin restaurants, and its perpetrators might just as easily be owners as lowly barbacks.”
Sexism in the workplace is nothing new to women, but for me it was especially striking that it could be so bad in a field that has been so historically linked to female and domestic sensibilities. There have been few skills that have been more attributed to women and to the home than cooking. Women were told that cooking was a vital skill in attracting and keeping a good husband, as is implied in the old expression, “The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Yet when women try to apply this traditional skill in a professional setting, they are often met with snarky comments or flat-out abuse and possibly assault. As in other areas of work, female chefs tend to be silent because gaining a reputation of being “difficult” and “not being a team player” can be quite detrimental to their career, if not destroy it altogether.
This ironic misogyny around cooking can be partially explained by the military-esque brigade model of management that is most often used in professional kitchens. It was created by Auguste Escoffier during the late 19th century, and it has a strong emphasis on hierarchy.
“There’s nothing inherently anti-woman about the brigade system, but if the chef at the top of the hierarchy wants to stop women from advancing, the system provides a convenient excuse: The girl just couldn’t take the heat.”
The relentless sexism in professional kitchens is an especially provocative and paradoxical example that workplace harassment is not about women being ill-suited for the work in question. Rather, it’s about attacking women who dare to enter the workplace at all. Even in a subject area that has been so culturally ingrained as “women’s work,” the moment that work extended to outside the domestic home, it became off-limits or at least extremely difficult for women to penetrate.
When men say, “Get back in the kitchen!” they do not mean the literal kitchen because clearly professional kitchens don’t fall in this category. Kitchen here is a euphemism for a woman’s domestic base. So what they really mean is “Go home!” Kitchen, in this context, isn’t a symbol for cooking per se, but instead a symbol for servitude.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, men who harass women on the job are playing out an old game of slut-slaming that implies any woman who steps outside the sanctity of the home deserves whatever she gets.
It is a deeply ingrained notion in the patriarchy that a woman’s place should only ever be in the home serving her husband, and if a woman has the audacity to break that age-old contract of female servitude for male protection, she deserves no sympathy for what happens to her. If a woman steps outside the home, whether into the street or into a place of work, she is immediately giving a signal to her sexual availability, that with no husband or brother or father to protect her, she is fair game. It is absolutely atrocious that this backward mentality still persists, even if covertly.