When celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s chain of eateries were snubbed from the world’s best restaurants list, I revelled in the joy of knowing that the British vanguard of hyper-macho professional cooking will need a little humbling-up to do. Though the reign of men in the great kitchens of the world is far from over: somewhere in the top 10 proudly sits Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, known for his ‘Don’t try this at home’ cooking programmes.
Sometimes I think about why the big celebrity chefs in the UK tend to be male and how less oriented their cooking shows are towards domesticity. Y’know, very little in the way of feeding the kids and entertaining guests at dinner parties a la Nigella, and how they’re light years more glamorous than ‘How to boil an egg’ Delia. Serious cooking being the preserve of men means that for women, cooking is unremarkable and boring. Think The Great British Menu – all men. Think trendy and cool, and you have Jamie Oliver.
Traditionally, the sexual division of labour had relegated women to the domestic domain of the household, running the daily chores and preparing food for the family. Men, on the other hand, tend to busy themselves with more ‘rewarding’ activities, like paid work outside the home. Men who cook are grandly valued and thus rewarded handsomely. In several instances of the past, men were generally employed as cooks in the royal courts of pharoahs, sultans and kings. As a conscious tactic to ensure that what the royals ate were far superior as possible from the (perceived) banality of the common peasantry where women were the traditional cooks, royal dining became elevated to a kind of art form, and so was the status of the preparers.
Not much has changed since; men’s cooking is still valued more than women’s, though the rules now are little different. Haute cuisine is less about extravagance and more about educated and sophisticated flavours. Less is more. It’s steadily become a kind of sport where the players are aggressive and competitive. So it’s no surprise then that male-headed restaurants are often the bastions of macho and misogynist language and behaviour. Cue The F-Word, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and Marco Pierre White’s Hell’s Kitchen (Note the dark and foreboding titles).
Today in The Guardian I came face to face with a new term created for men who know their bouillon from their brisket: the gastrosexual. It’s a term with the potential to the turn the stomachs (mind the pun) of loutish male chauvinists and feminists alike. Like the metrosexual, gastrosexuals are men who are, I bite my tongue as I say this, in touch with their feminine side. Oh, did I say that like metrosexuals, gastrosexuals can only be men?
[…] men, who have always dominated professional kitchens, are now cooking at home more than ever before. Freed at last from gender expectations, we are realising that tenderly preparing a meal does not pose a threat to our masculinity. In fact, what other activity actually encourages you to swear every second word? In 1961, men spent an average of five minutes a day cooking and washing up; today that figure has increased to 27 minutes. The “gastrosexual” – the sexed-up marketing tag for my kind – now prepares one-fifth of all in-home evening meals. [source]
About 80 percent of the meal labour is still a heavy load for women in this feminism-is-not-necessary-anymore age of ours. For the majority of men, cooking is something done for special occasions, something one chooses to do rather than something one has to do. And then there are these aforementioned TV chefs that fuel the curious and adventurous imaginations of their largely male audience:
“Perhaps the most important difference between men and women when they cook are the different role models they have in their head,” says comedian Ben Miller, who is still, occasionally literally, dining off having beaten Gordon Ramsay on The F Word’s Celebrity Challenge with his Victoria sponge. “I’ve got Ramsay, the Galloping Gourmet, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the god of all gods, Jamie Oliver. When I’m baking I think of myself as Heston Blumenthal, with the safety specs on and a blowtorch. When a woman is cooking she is thinking of herself being her mother. And that can be a problem for her or a good thing.” [source]
When I cook no one is in my head, not even my mother. Although I have to admit Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has my heart. His back to nature, back to basics, and even back to the inglorious British past of offal cooking approach are all truly inspiring. But guess what? He’s a little domestic and rather maternal, too. If teaching difficult vegetarians and fish-phobes to embrace unusual cuts of meat and sea-dwelling creatures other than fish, respectively, is not as motherly as teaching a toddler to read I don’t know what is.
With Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage, I round off my thoughts on the sexual politics of cooking. But what does my approach to food and cooking say about my feminism? Well, not much really. I happily embody the domestic stereotype who loves baking cupcakes and hosting dinner parties, and I certainly am guilty of non-human oppression due to my love of meat and seafood. Yes, I’m not ashamed of them. But really, not everything in life has to be feminist.