Now that Sophie Dahl is out of our kitchen, who will be the next female TV chef?

First published at The F-Word Blog

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For the few people who care, Sophie Dahl will not be returning to our television sets to teach us how to make an eggs Benedict that’s saucy in more ways than one. Dahl had a shaky start, with mixed reviews from episode one and had more media buzz about the kitchen she performed in than her food. Soon, there were snide remarks about the way she holds a cutting knife and her many whimsical but sometimes gut-churning food-related sexual innuendos.

Premature comparisons with Nigella Lawson’s looks and finger-licking abilities long before her programme started were inevitable, and sadly that might’ve assisted its early demise. I sometimes wonder whether the golden age of mixing food and sensuality had long ended with Nigella, and that we’re now heralding the squeezing out of women from the ranks of famous cooks?

Cooking shows are dominated by men. Nearly all head chefs, not to mention those blinged with Michelin stars who make media appearances, are men. The overwhelming number of those who compete in gruelling cooking competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Menu and win, are men. Hairy bikers, men. It’s not that women do not cook of course, they are just seldom credited for it. Women’s cooking is often considered a domestic art, like cleaning and childcare.

At home, women do most of the cooking because they usually have to. Men usually cook when it’s a special occasion, an occasion to show off. But when men have to prepare food, or put under pressure or on the boil in the kitchen – to use cooking expressions, it’s likely to be a paid job and are rewarded handsomely for it. So it’s not surprising that professional kitchens are often considered to be the bastion of macho and male chauvinistic behaviour.

Pointing out the macho-ness of ‘serious’ cooking matters, because it has taken domesticity out of cooking, out of the domain of the traditionally feminine. The late Keith Floyd prepared dishes on the open decks of sailing boats while Gordon Ramsay risked life and limb to harvest shellfish off coastal cliffs amid crashing waves. Food now have hints of danger, competitiveness, and mind-blowing intricacy; ‘serious’ food is a masculine art.

Female celebrity cooks before Dahl such as the likes of Delia Smith, Nigella, Rachel Allen, on the other hand, played up the domestic goddess image; with honest to goodness home cooking that kids will love and cinched for success at dinner parties – all demonstrated without subtlety in a stagey 1950’s bliss by the tail end of the programme. The Delicious Miss Dahl walked with ease in the footsteps of her culinary foremothers and sisters because it perpetuated the myth of domestic paradise, and perhaps that was the show’s downfall, aside from the fact that her food was far from adventurous.

As someone who watches nearly every cooking programme rather religiously on British TV, including Taste in the small hours, I find the gender divide in presentation, recipes, and sometimes ingredients startling. Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl made it a point to discuss their tricky relationship with rich food, as if knowing all too well of the viewers who are quick to judge women who love their food a little too much. In one episode coded Romance, Dahl served up a sumptuous meaty shepherd’s pie only to not eat it in the end. Instead, she tucked cautiously into her lentil option. What a pity I thought. Perhaps it was an act of sacrifice, like the way vegetarians selflessly prepare non-veg food for others, except this was supposed to be something romantic in this day and age.

There are many things wrong with a cooking programme that depends plenty on the presenter’s sex appeal but little else. And as demonstrated by Ms Dahl’s early exit, sensuality and mediocre cooking knowhow make a losing combination. But with female TV chefs so few and confined to domesticity, what will be the winning recipe for the next female food star?

Jamie Oliver, food, and Eurocentrism

Because this is how Americans tend to look
Jamie Oliver: Because this is how Americans tend to look

If you follow Jamie Oliver’s cooking programmes, alternatively known as The Naked Chef, you’ll notice that his cool and effortless boyish attitude to cooking strikes a chord with the young, mostly male, upwardly-mobile, and aspiring members of the British middle class; it’s about an obsession with fresh, locally-sourced or grow-your-own ingredients, and recipes firmly grounded in French/Italian cooking traditions. He’s deeply committed to getting Britain cooking at home again, and so none of those ready meals and takeaways plaguing busy families. But he has done so by entering the homes of lower income families in some of the roughest neighbourhoods in the country, who, by Jamie’s middle class standards, have Britain’s most deplorable eating habits. He is persuasive to some, patronising to others.

Ever so commercial-savvy, Jamie is also the face of the local supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and his mantra is clear: cooking can be easy, quick and should be inexpensive. You can also adopt the Jamie Oliver lifestyle by buying his stylish dining and kitchen products whilst reading his eponymous magazine. But it doesn’t end there, he’s all about kids eating nutritious meals in school and teaching them to start cooking from a young age too, because it’s never too early to be have bourgeois aspirations. So far so caring and generous, but very commercial.

His newest television project, called Jamie’s American Road Trip, aims to spread his love of funky fusion cooking in the United States, which comes with a US-inspired cookbook too (launched on the day of his first episode no less). Eschewing the usual tropes of American food and travel itinerary, Jamie rubs shoulders with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, immigrant communities and the homeless in New York City, and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups. Told through the medium of local food and recipes, Jamie brings to the table some pretty interesting stories of life in America today despite his naive geniality and earnestness which I found awkward at times, but it is his ignorance and Eurocentric views about food that I found just difficult to swallow.

In an episode filmed in New York City, Jamie meets Egyptian-born chef Ali, who runs a restaurant popular with the large Egyptian community in Astoria. The chef was kind enough to prepare on camera his specialty, a tomato-based meaty broth which Jamie made references to minestrone. What sounded like someone making sense of familiar flavours ended up becoming a comment that suggested that “ethnic” cuisines simply orbited around Western European cooking. To make sense of non-European flavours and textures, “unusual” food must be viewed through European lenses. And so dim sum is like Chinese tapas, chapatis look like Indian pancakes, kuih-muih can only be translated as Malaysian cakes. “You are degrading my cooking and culinary culture”, says Chef Ali to the Naked Chef. Clearly flabbergasted and apologetic, Jamie goes on to make another racist mistake in New Orleans.

On last night’s programme, Jamie recounts the devastation caused by hurricane Gustav, marvels at the resilience of the human spirit and the taste of gumbo. There he meets Leah Chase and she shows him how to make a quick and proper gumbo. While adding into the cooking pot some okra, Chase talks about the history behind the gumbo and how people brought into the South for slave labour hid okra seeds in their ears. She also asks Jamie whether Britons eat okra to which he replied yes, because the South Asian communities eat a lot of them and they’re easily available in “ethnic” areas in many cities around the country.

Again, Jamie annoys a guest on the programme by lumping together diverse ethnic communities and culinary traditions into a pot labeled non-White European and Other, and therefore more-or-less the same. He apologises for his general buffoonery and says that he didn’t mean to sound racist; he’s just unaware that his comments were hurtful.

And there’s another example that encapsulates Jamie’s Eurocentric worldview: inspired by the vibrant immigrant community in New York City, he sets out to select guests who represent it for his very own underground restaurant/dinner party, but they all turn out to be mostly White. They are also young, middle-class, and bourgeois just like him. To summarise my thoughts on his show, I find it successful at presenting the diverse and complex relationships Americans have with food, from anti-restaurant movements to free food programmes for the poor. But unfortunately, his show is limited to just that: it only presents but fails to be sensitive and insightful about what it is showing. It appears that Jamie Oliver’s world isn’t really as colourful and diverse in the truest sense as his approach to cooking, which is a pity for someone whom many believe has his heart in the right place.

The masculine art of cooking

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.

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