Sexism in the kitchen

Today Eater posts a letter from New York restaurateur Keith McNally claiming Times dining critic Frank Bruni has an unremittingly sexist slant. The proof? His failure to issue anything more than one star to a restaurant helmed by a woman chef. The issue of women chefs in the kitchen, both their number and their comparative fame to their male counterparts, is important to me. Ed and I have discussed this issue a lot, especially the number of female chefs in New York City versus San Francisco. But I’m not sure McNally is correct here.

First you need to look at the types of places that get three and four stars in New York: they’re high-end gastronomic temples, not cozy small restaurants like Prune and The Spotted Pig. The New York four stars are all French (Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean George), Frenchish (Per Se), or Japanese (Masa). Neither French nor Japanese kitchens are known for their, um, let’s call it open-mindedness. That’s not to say a woman can’t be head chef at any of these places, but if you look at the places women do run, they tend to be more in the school of Alice Waters California/New American places. And as long as four stars at the Times goes to places in the traditional fine-dining model, it’s unlikely women will start getting four stars in New York anytime soon. After all, how many women were awarded four stars when Ruth Reichl was reviewing for the Times?

Of course, that doesn’t address the question of whether the Times should be more open to what three and four star dining experiences should be. And it doesn’t explain why San Francisco has women running large, fine dining establishments (Boulevard, Jardiniere) in greater numbers than New York, places that would garner two stars at least from Bruni if they were in New York. (Though to be fair, all the San Francisco four stars also have men as head chefs.)

What Keith McNally is calling the disease is really a symptom of a much larger problem. Frank Bruni may or may not be sexist, but when you look at what he’s reviewing, it’s hard to find a large number of restaurants chefed by women that he’s overlooking, or failing to properly credit. The real problem here is the real problem in the rest of the working world: women, for all their education and talent, don’t rise as high as men. Whether you want to blame the glass ceiling, sexism, life choices like taking time off for children, the government for not providing maternity leave and child care, or plain old female “opting out,” it’s everywhere you look. Number of women partners in top law firms. Number of women deans at universities. Number of women CEOs of Fortune 500s. Or number of women chefs running nice restaurants. Frank Bruni hardly seems like the problem, but I admire Keith McNally for raising the issue because I think it’s an important one. And I’ll be interested to see if/how the Times and Mr. Bruni respond.

7 thoughts on “Sexism in the kitchen

  1. Do you think Frank Bruni would be unwilling to give 3 or 4 stars to Chez Panisse?

  2. I think the issue of sexism in the professional food world is, in some ways, more vexing than in other professions because cooking inside the home is traditionally women’s work. It seems that female chefs are more welcome at cozy, relaxed, homey, restaurants, which, perhaps because of the domestic associations, are somehow perceived as less “serious” establishments than stuffier or flashier high end dining more strongly associated with professional, outside the home cooking.
    I don’t know if the more rustic, more homelike restaurants with male chefs get any more recognition than similar ones with female chefs. If these types of restaurants are routinely overlooked by Bruni and other restaurant critics, it may be because any cooking that falls near the category of home-cooking (no matter how much better it is than anything most of our mothers ever made) has been feminized and, like other feminized professions (teaching, nursing, etc.) has long been undervalued in the marketplace.

  3. Jimmy, my understanding is that Alice Waters isn’t actively cooking at Chez Panisse, so I didn’t include it. But if she is, then that qualifies, as CP has four stars from the SF Chronicle. I imagine Bruni would give it at least three.

  4. Jimmy – Possibly, but Alice Waters is not the Chef there anymore. From the Chronicle: “Chef duties are split between Jean-Pierre Moulle and David Tanis, each of whom work half the year.”

  5. To establish my foodie credentials, I’ve been to El Bulli.
    Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to address the the problem you mentioned in your post.
    I blame the patriarchy.
    Twisty says it better than I can –

  6. There is also a secondary issue here. It is high time to ditch the ratings altogether. Any reviewer worth her/his salt should be able to convey a review in prose alone, without invoking an arbitrary scale.

  7. Scott, interesting suggestion, but people love love love simple summaries. Who wants to read and digest a review when you can see “three stars” and know it will be good? Also, and among a certain type of person, to be able to say you’ve dined at a Michelin three star, or a Times four star is important.
    But it would be nice to move away from something like this, because Momofuku Ssm Bar can be just as enjoyable — if not more — for me than Le Bernardin or Per Se. It’s as much “four stars” in my book, even though Bruni wouldn’t see it that way. I think it depends on expectations.

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