• Wednesday, March 28, 2007

    More on Grill Bitches and "Lat-eeenos"

    From Bourdain, posting on Ruhlman...he rants about the egregious racism of the James Beard house in this post on Ruhlman.com taking up his favorite cause celebre of Mexicans in the kitchen, but I just want some of these macho big boys in the food world to acknowledge sexism in the business. (For the record, I do think he's spot on about who does a lot of the work in kitchens that goes unrecognized).

    For me, it's all disgusting and part of my experience in the business and in other businesses. It ain't new and it ain't going away until it's openly acknowledged, till guys at the top own it, and choose to do something different going forward.

    As I pointed out previously here, only when someone like Bourdain calls a GUY a name like "The Grill Bitch" and means it as a compliment, and it's taken as such; only then will we be sure we've made some progress.

    And if Bourdain deplores the James Beard House so, why does he still go to their events?

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    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    Female Chefs and Molecular Gastronomy - Why don’t we call them “Male Chefs?”

    I was waiting for this. Finally, someone is hitting it dead on. The adulation of chefs, their celebrity and such has done little to shed light on the gender imbalance in the field. As culinary innovators gather in Spain some wonder where the girls are.

    As usual, calls it like it is when he notes that few women will tolerate or survive the testosterone battlefield of a professional kitchen. When one does, she gets the nickname “The Grill Bitch.” Which, of course, he means in the nicest, gender-non-specific way, I’m sure.

    I have been shocked to see how little progress in gender equality we have made in professional restaurants and kitchens. As with most any field, you see mostly men in the highest paid positions and few women. I’d be curious about the gender distribution at culinary schools versus at top kitchens. Like major consulting firms, law firms and accounting firms, just to name a few, I’d bet you’d see more equal numbers at entry level, then a precipitous drop as you move up the pipeline.

    I’m most disappointed in how little change has occurred since I entered the workforce. Men at the tops (and bottoms) of so many places still seem to assume that men occupy the best paid positions because they are the best. They tend not to notice that it’s the male boss who gives that one female server the worst station or the worst customers consistently. Ensuring she, unlike her male peers, gets the least chance at developing high-paying clients and great tips. They never question who’s making these calls.

    Our reverence for science and gadgets
    In an interesting piece the NYTimes observes the relative absence of women on the forefront of this new trend of molecular gastronomy. The debate is nearly reduced (in this article) to why girls don’t like science.

    Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that girls actually do well at and enjoy science and math - in about the same numbers as boys – until puberty. Mysteriously, they become more interested in not competing with boys, not appearing too smart, and soon, they nearly vanish from the fields. One has only to look at recent controversies at backwater institutions like, say Harvard, to note that guys on top still think girls cannot, or should not, compete in fields like science.

    Getting back to restaurants and grill bitches…
    I would say that few women have probably enjoyed enough success in this field to get to the point that they can be as devoted to something so extreme. I believe El Bulli is only open 6 months of the year. One doesn’t do that in the restaurant business if one is concerned about turning enough tables to make rent and pay back the investors.

    I think there’s also something about the competitive nature of men who succeed in these skewed systems. They (the guys, I mean) emulated the guys at the top when they began the climb. That behavior was what they continued to get rewarded for. That is what they began to respect as the model of success in the field.

    Let’s take a look at restaurant kitchens. (I don’t see a lot of men commanding respect of other men for taking over the home kitchen.) Assume a new trend is started. The more provocative this trend, the better. The guys at the top of the media, the restaurant world, the culinary world all notice. “Whoa…dude, that’s cool.” And the competition begins. He did architectural food and got noticed by the guy at the New York Times? I’ll make mine taller.

    If there are women around, if they are willing to play by those rules, they may earn some respect. Chances are they’re not there in the first place. As one chef put it, she just wasn’t that interested in churning out that kind of food.

    Some of the chefs interviewed put “feeding people” in opposition to trend-setting food techniques. I see no reason why it has to be an either-or equation.

    I do think it’s interesting to consider whether, if women chefs started a trend, men would applaud it and begin to emulate it. Just imagine Gordon Ramsay trying to out-do Lidia Bastianich at something. Is he working overtime to top Teresa Berrenechea at paella?

    Do you suppose he pays attention to what the girls are doing? Would Battali or Ripert, or Boulud, pick anyone…do these guys follow what their few female counterparts are doing and try to emulate it or surpass it? I’ll bet they largely ignore what women in their field are doing. Why? Because they can. It is of no consequence to them. Unless or until there is another outside honor bestowed, or star earned by the female chef, they will not probably notice. God forbid, she gets a star before you do.

    Some girls just won’t play that game
    Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of acclaimed East Village restaurant Prune, is quoted in the NYTimes piece on another aspect of this issue: “Historically, when women move into men’s work it loses value,” she said. “Maybe we’ll see the pay drop, and the science suddenly getting called ‘soft.’ I’ll say this: If you see me doing foams at Prune, you’ll know the whole thing has gone down the tube.”

    I love her attitude and, in the main, I think she’s correct. Look at grade school teachers: mostly female, poorly paid as compared to entry level corporate jobs. There was a time when that profession was male dominated, enjoyed more respect and was much better compensated. Many other examples exist, but the question, I think, is not whether female chefs will begin to play with new gadget-driven methods to compete with the male molecular gastronomists. It’s not whether science attracts or deters female chefs to that trend.

    She who frames the question wins
    This was the lesson on the first day of my Constitutional Law class. I have found the maxim to hold true in many contexts, including this one. I believe the question to ask is: who is awarding the laurel wreaths or Michelin stars to whom. Who is deciding which chefs get the financing? Who decides what makes a given restaurant proposal or other project bid more appealing?

    As long as women and men don’t share in the power of defining what is hot, bold, cutting-edge in any given field, those markers of achievement will continue to be defined by the qualities that reflect the gender of the people bestowing the accolades, and their baggage. One might say we can’t help it, it’s our nature. I’ve seldom seen power decide, of its own accord, that it needs to be shared more evenly.

    Surely, there are women drawn to gadgets and science. But how many of them are given a shot in a kitchen like Stupak’s or Dufresne’s to experiment with no disproportionate consequence? Certainly few enough that people in the article mention it as an anomaly.

    I’ve seen female business leaders applaud male employees who simply parrot the suggestion of a female employee who said the same thing five minutes earlier. I’ve seen highly successful professional women curry favor of junior men to the exclusion of equally able women. I’ve seen men in kitchens or boardrooms completely ignore or marginalize women.

    Highest honors
    And then, occasionally, if we have the balls to hang in there with the boys and prove what we’re made of: we get the accolade, a moniker like “The Grill Bitch.”

    The day a man calls another man that type of name – means it as a complimentand the guy takes it as such – THAT is the day we can stop having these annoying and depressing conversations. Then we can simply be chefs, not “female chefs” (as opposed to the assumed norm: male) “chefs”.

    Then we can turn out good food, molecular or not, side by side with the bitch. And I mean that in the most respectful and gender-non-specific way.

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    Friday, March 02, 2007

    Peddling Flesh and Pushing Limits

    An Amusing Chapter in the Book of Food & Culture

    Our Lust for Food Celebrity

    I hate to rely on anything as trite as “boys will be boys,” but c’mon guys, you’re not giving me much else to work with here. Maybe it’s the meat. Maybe it’s the testosterone. Maybe it’s the ferocious lure of the public spotlight. We all seem to have developed a prurient interest in food and food celebrities. We’re panting after chefs like hormonal kids after rock stars, hanging on every word as if they’re demi-gods. Wearing their clownish clogs, (I know, I know they’re comfortable), buying their imperfect cookbooks. We seem to have an insatiable hunger for chef gossip, celebrity chef sightings, and chef-branded equipment. They couldn’t be happier. Perhaps we have ourselves to blame.

    Look to any field and you’ll find boys at the top engaged in public duels. Politicians. Musicians. It’s a classic zero-sum game, as ancient as it is impervious to change or improvement. Religions, philosophers, governments, wives, mothers…all fruitlessly aim toward higher goals undaunted by the considerable evidence of the futility of their efforts. But that’s a story for another day, another Feminist Studies class, another 50 minutes on the couch.

    Today we’re talking about food. This of course, changes nothing. Apparently, watching Anthony Bourdain eat a pig’s poop-shoot isn’t enough for our jaded tastes anymore. He’s now hawking a new show for some guy focused entirely on eating weird and gross stuff. Presumably, weirder and grosser than what we’ve already seen Bourdain eat. Hold on to your gullets, boys and girls, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

    And the next fight on the ticket is…
    Bruni v. Chodorow. Whatever the reasons, it does seem that boys cannot resist a good, public pissing contest. Witness (New York Times food writer) versus (restauranteur). Bad review answered by full page New York Times response/rant. It seems it might never end.

    The latest round has Frank Bruni breathless and ecstatic over Robert’s Penthouse Steaks. Yes, that Penthouse. Who knew they did restaurants?

    Bruni’s review, which is much more favorable than his review of Chodorow’s Kobe Club, is sure to send Chodorow into a fit of apoplexy. Never mind the difference between Kobe beef and prime. Bruni gives a steakhouse with strippers a star? Yes. Yes he does.

    In his Penthouse review, you have to struggle to find food references. Between all the comments on seductive flesh, overexposed bosom, wine and toes (not kidding), girls that can’t spell their own names (asked if Brianna spells her name with one “n” or two, she admits she “hadn’t really thought about it”), offers of table-side massage; food notes are kind of hard to find. Ultimately, Bruni does manage to talk about the food. And he likes it. He likes it more than he liked Chodorow’s Kobe Club. Oy. You just know this will be trouble.

    My sense is that the distractions, beautiful as they may be, are distractions from what sounds like pretty good steakhouse fare. “Perfectly charred, dry aged steaks.” “Crisp onion rings.” “Naughty Brussels sprouts.” The guy peddling the flesh here, the chef that is, worked at Guy Savoy in Paris and Daniel in New York. This isn’t Hooters with an attitude; we’ve got some credentials in the kitchen, no matter what else is on the floor. Still, it’s a steakhouse with fairly standard, if well- executed, steakhouse fare, with the addition of strippers. Yet Bruni is “ecstatic”? Why do I hear “I just bought it for the articles.” And “I just went there for the steaks.”

    Sauce for the goose, and what about the gander?
    The notion of really good steak, combined with a (presumably) high-end strip club, got me wondering. Will we see a great steakhouse /strip-club for women? One with male entertainment? After all, Bruni lists several steakhouse stand-bys and notes their deficiencies, as compared to his meal at Robert’s. The shortcomings noted having nothing to do with the lack of tableside massage or “buttery nipple” desserts.

    Would women, like me, who might have enjoyed Peter Luger's, want to go to Robert’s for superior food? I’m not sure. Is there an option, such as a Chippendale’s Grill? Don’t think so. Will there be? I doubt it.

    At a certain juncture in our lives, many women figured out that we already had the lives of the men our mothers wanted us to marry. We had good jobs, took interesting vacations, we drove fun cars. We had our own humidors. We celebrated professional accomplishments and personal victories with our girlfriends, at good steakhouses.

    We chose the steakhouses that treated us with respect. We ignored those that treated us like incomplete parties not to be seated. We noted the ones that seated women in Siberia. You know, the tables near the kitchen, the restroom, with the server in training. There are women reading this and nodding – I’ll bet my last single malt on that. We have preferences borne of experience, dry- vs. wet-aged. We know who has better hash browns. Who has better oysters. Which bartenders make better drinks and where we’ll have the dinner we want, service we expect and will pay for.

    I have to say, even if the steaks at Robert’s Penthouse are better than Peter Luger’s, I don’t think I’ll be scurrying to Robert’s just yet. I don’t really want “Mahogany” angling for a lap dance while I peruse the wine list. I just can’t envision a parallel venue opening any time soon. I admit, I haven’t polled my dry-aged-steak-loving, martini- and Manhattan-drinking, grown-up girlfriends yet. But running through the list in my head, I just don’t see it. I can’t think of very many of us who want stud muffins shaking their stuff in our faces or over our well-marbled rib-eyes.

    It’s not that we don’t have healthy appetites for all the things we’re talking about here. Trust me on that score. I just don’t see women combining the two, simultaneously, for dinner. I would be surprised if I got a maelstrom of mail to the contrary. If I’m wrong, bring it on.

    My science fails me, but experience tells me something
    The sociologist, psychologist and feminist in me all come up short. There’s no neat, easy answer to this question. Do women lust for meat and men less than men lust for meat and women? I don’t think so. Would we engage in public pissing contests over Kobe versus prime dry-aged, girl on the side? I don’t see it. I feel as if I should be able to offer some insight here, but I’m drawing a big fat doughnut.

    One thing I feel is absolutely predictable. Sooner or later things will swing back by some measure. The boys push the gross-out, food-as-proving-ground boundary further out. At some point, a countervailing impulse will draw it back. I only hope not too far. As with humor, philosophy, art, food has the power to tap into truly deep, universal truths. If we go along for the ride, we have much as individuals, and societies to learn.

    In the meantime, the games of chicken get played out, sometimes in the absurd venue of television and food blogs. I may not gain insights from the Bruni-Chodorow match, but I might be stretched or challenged by a good food and travel show. Maybe. Better by actual travel and eating.

    Another of the recent macho food writing contests offers fantasy Food Network star cage fight match-ups. I confess to suggesting a ticket featuring the girls from Ab Fab taking on a pair of food celebs who’d be drunk under the table in no time. Maybe the more intriguing duel would be someone like weird food guy versus safe mother figure. A kind of foodie version of Godzilla v. Bambi.

    All the scary food challenges might send anyone running for the Hamptons and the comfort of Ina’s kitchen. With all the carbs, fat, soft-lighting, her soft laugh and ample bosom – one can imagine even neurotic, insomniac, rail-thin chefs being lulled into blissful safe sleep or at least food coma. Ina, can I get some truffle butter on top of that steak? Another bellini, please?

    Maybe after all our limit-testing and bluster, we just want a good, enjoyable meal. Maybe one that stretches our horizon a bit, but doesn’t require us to get vaccinations or use antibacterial gel.

    Tony, Mahogany, Brianna: I ask you, what’s wrong with that?

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