Opinion: Women chefs at the top table

Women in the Arab region are breaking gender stereotypes and rising as outstanding chefs
Women in the Arab region are breaking gender stereotypes and rising as outstanding chefs
By Dr. Mona S. AlMunajjed
Sun 31 Dec 2017 11:26 AM

At a recent dinner party, while savoring the best of French cuisine – a Foie Gras Terrine, a Cabillaud au Gratin, a Poulet Dore a la Provencale, my neighbor next to me asked: “This is so good and all prepared by Chef Andre… So who do you think cooks better – men or women?”

What a question! As a passionate cook myself, I consider that it’s nothing to do with gender – whoever has a passion to cook is a good cook, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman.

I spend hours watching popular TV food and cooking shows, drooling over the amazing cream cakes, glowing vegetables and gleaming kitchen accessories.

Today, cooking as profession is a hip and chic “sport” exuding glitz and glamour. And guess what? Almost 90 percent of those brilliant chefs producing food on the screen and dominating the restaurant and hotel restaurant sectors are men.

The Top Chefs in the World 2017 are all men, such as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Wolfgang Puck, Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Vikas Khanna, Emeril Lagasse, Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and Anthony Bourdain, with only three women even in the Top 100. And the three chefs who have collected the most Michelin stars – the most desirable global recognition – are men: French Joel Robuchon (28 stars) and Alain Ducasse (19 stars) and British Gordon Ramsay (16 stars).

Historically, men have always dominated the restaurant scene, which began to develop after the French Revolution in the late 1700s, when many of the male cooks who had worked in the houses of the upper classes found themselves unemployed and set up as the forerunners of today’s restaurants.

Women were employed as professional cooks in households that could afford to employ them, and of course in most households even to the present, it is the woman of the family who is responsible for cooking the family meals. And it is notable that many top male chefs claim they were first inspired and taught to cook by their mothers.

According to the Good Food Nation 2017 survey in Britain, women still do the vast majority of cooking in the average British household (76%). According to the International Men and Gender Equality Study in the Middle East and North Africa 2017, patriarchal norms and sexist attitudes still prevail and indicate that most men still believe a woman's primary role is at home cooking and taking care of the family.

What is perhaps surprising is that nowadays male chefs are more successful than women as flashy TV celebrities, some with a following and fame equal to Hollywood stars. Perhaps this is because the viewers of the TV cooking programs are mostly women, who may find it boring to see another woman cooking as it is an extension of their own traditional role.

Instead, they are fascinated to see an unconventional man with a charming smile cooking, traveling to exotic new places around the world, and showing off his creativity in producing tempting cuisine. Just watch the performances of American cooking show host Guy Fieri with his bleached hair and red convertible car, Indian chef Kunal Kapur with his yellow table, Spanish-born Australian chef Miguel Maestre with his tropical kitchen or Italian Chef David Rocca with his dolce vita!

Women who do appear on television tend either to be viewed as teachers showing viewers how to cook,  as was pioneer American Chef and Culinary Icon Julia Child, or marginalised to the realms of the domestic goddess, cooking and promoting healthy lifestyles in their dream kitchens.

Professional cooking is still a male-dominated industry partly for historical reasons but also because it is a physically stressful job in a rough and macho environment. It involves long hours of hard work, standing up for long stretches of time and operates in anti-social hours. Some argue that women are not physically or emotionally fit to work in a professional cuisine but it is more likely that it is more difficult for women to balance work and family life. So it is easier for them to go into less hectic fields with more flexible schedules such as baking pastries or catering.

But changes are afoot. Women have creativity and skills, and the key to their success in the culinary world is not only hard work, but perseverance, and the will to survive, innovate and succeed. In the past women were usually considered unable to take on the complex job of managing restaurant kitchens, but with women moving into top managerial positions in all industries this attitude is obviously outdated.

We now see more women around the globe moving to the forefront of the culinary scene and reaching top positions in the food profession, proving that they can do as well as or even surpass men, becoming ranked among the best chefs in the world. Gradually they are taking up the challenge of breaking through the industry’s glass ceiling as outstanding chefs in their own countries.

Anne-Sophie Pic, chef patron of La Dame de Pic is the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars. Clare Smyth, chef and owner of Core, is the first and only female British chef to hold and retain three Michelin stars.

Spanish chef Elena Arzak heads the kitchen of three-star Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián. Emma Bengtsson is the first female Swedish chef to earn two Michelin stars and is at the head of the New York restaurant Aquavit. Ana Ros, the only female chef from Slovenia, owner of Hisa Franco, received the World’s Best Female Chef Award, 2017. South African chef Chantel Dartnall, owner of Mosaic, Pretoria, received the World’s Best Chef Award – Lady, 2017.

Arab chefs

And the good news is that in the Arab region, women are breaking gender stereotypes and rising as outstanding chefs. Jordanian celebrity chef Manal Al Alem, born in Palestine, is the author of many cook books, has earned the title of Queen of Arabian Kitchen and has a TV cooking show. She started her first center in Amman for cooking tools and arts.

In Saudi Arabia, Saudi chef Mona Mousalli displays an exceptional talent in cuisine and is leading a cooking show as a judge in Top Chef Middle East. She specialized in culinary arts in Switzerland, Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and worked with famous top British chefs in London. Dhoha Abdullah is the first Saudi female head chef at a hotel in Riyadh. She studied cooking in Lebanon and India. She develops traditional dishes into special ones, with a new twist and exceptional flavors.

In the UAE, Khulood Atiq is the first Emirati female chef and author of a cooking book, Sarareed. She is highly knowledgeable at mixing oriental spices and developing a fusion of Arab, Indian, Italian and American cuisine. Backed by professional experience in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, she trains chefs in authentic Emirati cuisine.

Men and women wearing the chef’s uniform are not very different in skills, creativity, leadership qualities, and ambition. What matters is not whether men cook better than women or vice versa, but whether the chef has a passion to create food that makes our palate sing. And now let me praise Chef Andre and savor my delightful chocolate soufflé!

Dr. Mona S. AlMunajjed is an award winning Sociologist, author and advisor on women and gender issues. (mona.almunajjed@gmail.com)

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Last Updated: Tue 30 Jan 2018 02:54 PM GST

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