Good Taste: Celebrity chefs simmered in sexism

A design of different celebrity chefs standing next to each other.
(Alyssa Shao | Daily Trojan)

When I was in elementary school, I discovered the channel that changed my life. In fact, it is largely the reason I’m sitting here right now, writing about food. As I was flipping through channels one fateful afternoon after school, I stumbled upon the Food Network. While watching my first of many “Chopped” episodes, I immediately fell in love with each chef’s excitement and passion — even the ones who made the mistake of using the ice cream machine in the dessert round.

For a kid who loved food but was not allowed near the stove, I relished the opportunity to live vicariously through Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s elaborate competition spreads or Giada De Laurenris dinner party preparation. As a 10-year-old vegetarian, I may have never eaten a steak, but I knew exactly how to baste it in butter to optimize its texture and flavor.

 The older I got, the harder it was to ignore the way misogyny affected my favorite cooking shows. Because our patriarchal society constantly pushes the narrative that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, one would imagine that The Food Network, a channel all about kitchens around the world, would be dominated by women.

 Although women have more opportunities to pursue career interests, heteronormative relationships still place homekeeping on women. In the United States, 80% of women living with a partner state they do most of the meal preparation. 

While women have long been underrepresented or stereotyped in TV shows, cooking networks seem like the perfect place to spotlight women and challenge those stereotypes. If the burden of cooking falls on women, fame from cooking should be the same.

However, culinary media, which receives attention and monetary compensation, always excluded women. A study from the 2015 book “Taking the Heat,” showed that of all the chef profiles published between 2004 and 2009 in four major publications, only 11% focused on women and 12% featured men and women. These same abysmal statistics hold to this day. Currently, of the top 50 celebrity chefs with the highest net worth, only 10 are women.

Not only are women underrepresented in cooking media, shows marketed to women also reaffirm existing stereotypes. Women’s cooking shows generally focus on domestic cooking, from “Giada at Home” to Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa.” Instead of using these shows as a platform to share women’s range of experience in the kitchen, network executives use the channel to remind women of their strictly domestic role in the kitchen.

On the flip side, men on the channel helm competition shows that focus on industry-style cooking. On “MasterChef,” “Iron Chef” and “Cupcake Wars,” popular competition shows with rotating judges and contestants, the hosts are consistently men.

Gordon Ramsey is well known for screaming at competitors and giving harsh feedback to chefs on his show, “Hell’s Kitchen.” Similarly, Robert Irvine’s “Dinner: Impossible” and “Restaurant: Impossible” are high-pressure shows in which Irvine focuses on catering and the restaurant business and treats the people he trains harshly.

The problem is much more invasive than a few cherry-picked examples. Across most major cooking networks, show concepts push the idea that women’s culinary prowess cannot extend beyond their family kitchen. 

It’s easier to spot sexism when it plays out on national television. However, the misogyny in cooking shows is a byproduct of the rampant sexism in the cooking industry. 

For example, Cat Cora, an Iron Chef, mentioned that she applied to positions at 10 Michelin three-star restaurants after graduating from culinary school. Eight of these restaurants allegedly informed her that they do not have women in their kitchens.

Sara Moulton, a former celebrity chef, talked about facing sexism and harassment in professional kitchens over the past 40 years. She encountered many chefs who claimed that women could not work in the kitchen because they were too emotional, could not handle the pressure and high temperatures and were not able to lift heavy pots. Although these arguments hold no merit, the bias against women has turned the kitchen into a boy’s club: In restaurants across the country, over 75% of chefs and head cooks are men.

Power structures only survive because they reaffirm one another — i.e. capitalism and the patriarchy. The patriarchy’s survival relies on women lacking financial and political power. By barring women from using their cooking skills professionally, the cooking industry makes it increasingly difficult for women to profit off their knowledge and earn the financial power that could challenge the existing system.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe sexism and misogyny’s prevalence in 2021. Although we have a long way to go, the status quo within the food industry is beginning to shift. Popular chefs such as Mario Batali have been called out for sexual misconduct, forcing conversations about toxic kitchen work culture. The more we stand with women who call out misogyny and uplift chefs, such as Priya Krishna and Alex Guarnaschelli, the closer we move toward a safe and fair industry.

Reena Somani is a senior writing about food and its social implications. Her column, “Good Taste,” ran every other Thursday.