“Skirt Steak”: Chefs, chauvinism, and women in the food industry

With Chef Izard

Druckman’s interviewees include Stephanie Izard (right), Top Chef champion and Executive Chef of Chicago’s Girl & the Goat. Photo by Gandhu & Sarah (Kok Chih and Sarah Gan) via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A little over a month ago, Charlotte Druckman’s new book arrived at booksellers. Titled Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, the work weaves together Druckman’s own perspective with quotes from the 75 chefs she interviewed about their experiences in the food industry. I haven’t read the book yet, but based on reviews, I’m looking forward to it. As Celia Sack writes for Edible San Francisco, Skirt Steak

is best described as a modern, curated version of Studs Terkel’s Working. Terkel’s iconic book makes its living by quoting from men and women in every field of work, talking about all aspects of their jobs, sans commentary.

Charlotte Druckman, a journalist and exacting food writer for the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, among others, takes Terkel’s premise and applies it to today’s professional female chefs; she stuffs her fascinating book with chapters of quotes about working with men, owning restaurants, having families, being pastry chefs, television fame, etc.

The women interviewed rarely come to a consensus about their subject, and bravo to Druckman for not trying to force them to.

As Marissa Sertich describes at Honest Cooking,

It is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes tell-all about women chefs’ lives behind the line.

Frequently a male-driven brigade system, the interviews with over 70 women chefs highlight stories of women beating the odds, working hard, and standing out. The stories are familiar to any female who has worked in a professional kitchen – the rough and gruff banter that makes a kitchen feel like home, the asshole line-cook who takes the sex jokes too far, and working so hard to stand out – not as woman chef – but as a chef. With no qualifier.

A Village Voice interview with author Druckman by Jessica Goodman is also an informative read. For example, take this short excerpt:

You write about women in your book, and I want to know how you think shows like Top Chef and other cooking shows portray women?
Top Chef and Iron Chef are better examples of what’s happening. I think most of the other television shows on the Food Network are the real offense to women.

What do you mean by that?
When I interviewed Alex Guarnaschelli, she basically said that when you look at the Food Network, what you’re technically seeing most of the time is women being considered expert home cooks. Men are being considered expert professional restaurant chefs.

Even the settings that they’re in on the shows.
And even the ones who are actual chefs. Look at Alex’s Day Off. There she is in her V-neck like, “I just love making pot de crème.” That’s more of a problem, I think. Every time I said I was doing this book, people would say, “Oh, you must be writing about Julia Child.” And I again don’t want to sound like some kind of, I don’t know, asshole, but I’m sorry, Julia Child wasn’t a chef. She was a professional home cook. And she was brilliant. She was this wonderful writer and got so many people in America to start cooking at home and cook differently, but she’s not a chef. But that’s the template in a really weird way that the women on the Food Network are kind of based on.

Check out Druckman’s appearance on public radio’s The Splendid Table here. (It’s the same episode I featured in my lard post from late October.)

Finally, take a look at Skirt Steak‘s progenitor, a lengthy 2010 piece from Druckman in Gastronomica provocatively titled “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” As she concludes,

Today, women chefs have embraced their equal value and have faced the facts of their situation. But because they remain isolated and pigeonholed by the media, by culinary institutions, and sometimes even by their male peers, women don’t have the influence, numbers, or respect to change the reality of restaurant kitchens. The women who ought to question their culpability or power to effect change are those with agency and clout—the members of social institutions like the media and culinary organizations. Better to try and fail than do nothing. It’s already 2010. The status quo is unacceptable.

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