When the words “home-cooked meal” come up, they often conjure up Donna Reed-esque images of a woman with beautifully coiffed hair, heels, a nice dress, and an immaculate apron serving up a beautiful, perfectly presented meal. ¬†In other words, a Stepford Wife, or perhaps Bree from Desperate Housewives.
Or maybe you picture something different.  Perhaps a weary-looking woman who has already put in 9 hours at work, only to come home and cook a meal for her family (most of whom have already been home for a couple of hours).  Or maybe that same weary woman, instead of cooking a meal, decides to throw some frozen meals in the microwave or oven.  Alternately, maybe you see a woman, frustrated by her dislike of cooking tossing something haphazardly together, with an equally haphazard taste.
What the phrase “home-cooked meal” rarely invokes, however, is an image of a man in the kitchen. ¬†Say the words “professional chef” however, and it’s unlikely you’ll picture a woman. ¬†Estrella Guti√©rrez interviewed Venezuelan (professional) chef Helena Ibarra to discuss why men dominate the professional chef scene. ¬†You can read the entire Q&A¬†here, but I’ve included a few highlights below.

Women didn’t want to be slaves any more, or work professionally at what they were trying to liberate themselves from,’ renowned Venezuelan chef Helena Ibarra told [Inter Press Service], explaining why women have taken so long to compete in a workplace as symbolically feminine as the kitchen. ¬†[. . . ]

They didn’t want to be slaves any more. When the world of work opened its doors to women, they turned down cooking because they weren’t interested in it.

To them it was a chore and an obligation that they wanted to be free of; they wanted to be something other than cooks in the new world of work they had conquered. They did not want to inherit the slave status of their mothers, whose undervalued work it was to cook and raise their children.

What interest could they possibly have in peeling potatoes and doing the dishes, when they had to do the same things at home? Women have yielded professional cooking to men, because it wasn’t part of our liberation process. And that’s why we took so long to fight for our place in it. [ . . . ]

[ . . . ] Restaurants were conceived as businesses, and running them required a chef, or boss, which is what the word means.

He could serve bad food or treat the staff poorly, but his mission was to make a profit. And one boss has to measure up to another boss. Women weren’t allowed to reach that position, even though the chef might have been recreating his mother’s recipes.

Luckily, the times, they are a-changing. ¬†Cooking schools now have similar numbers of male and female students. ¬†And with such successful chefs as Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Rachael Ray (30 Minute Meals),¬†Angela Hartnett (Gordon Ramsay’s prot√©g√© and Michelin Star awardee), Iron Chef Cat Cora (also Executive Chef for Bon App√©tit magazine), Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking and TV’s¬†The French Chef), Anne Burrell (instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and Food Network host/chef) and many more, women have a wide range of role models, both in personality and cooking style.
Being a professional chef isn’t easy. ¬†Although TV can make it seem glamorous at times, being a chef means very long hours at work (sometimes up to 16 hours a day), where you’re always on your feet in a hot, humid kitchen, with a lot of other people in often too small a space. ¬†That’s disregarding the regular burns and cuts that chefs receive. ¬†Even so, some people find it rewarding, and after many women have rejected it for so long, it’s nice to see women struggling to take their place alongside men in a role that is, ironically, more traditionally feminine.
For more on women in the restaurant industry, read “Just call me Chef.”
-Katie Weidmann
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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