Ah, there’s the rub. We are so used to calling males who cook on TV ‘chefs’ and females who cook on TV ‘cooks’ we barely notice; and yet, how come? How come the men get the accolade of ‘chef’, marking them out to be some highly-trained, skilled master of the restaurant’s finer arts, while the women are always ‘cooks’, happily pottering away at some yummy pasta bake to give your kids the energy to go to football practice?
The more you look at the world of food with sexism-binoculars, the more obvious it becomes that cookery and cuisine have become one of the last arenas of unabashed gender-bias. TV chefs, in their white chef uniforms or casual-sexy weekend gear, take you through their shows explaining how to make ‘the perfect roast chicken’ or ‘the ultimate burger’, demonstrating their breathtaking culinary prowess. They tend not to make desserts and instead focus on tasks involving ninja-like use of impressive knives, browning giant hanks of meat in glistening olive oil, and seasoning dishes from a metre above the counter as if they were sprinkling magic dust across a whole kingdom.
TV cooks, meanwhile, teach you to deal with the chores of cooking: “This week, we’ll be making a healthy and easy casserole for weeknight after-school dinners, a no-stress dinner party classic, and a perfect Friday night pasta dish that comes together in five minutes so you have time to do the laundry and pick up the children and hoover and wipe the counters and take the dog out and finally put your feet up. Lovely.”
Women used to dominate culinary media. We yearned for women like Delia Smith and Julia Child to teach us everything we needed to know for creating delicious, rounded meals ourselves. And the programmes were like lessons, too; these kind, yet taking-no-nonsense ladies talked us through recipes from the bare bones as if we had never seen a whisk before, slowly demonstrating the various steps in making shortcrust pastry and tipping ingredients in tiny glass bowls into much larger bowls. Sure, it wasn’t exactly high-octane entertainment, but it was like attending a life-drawing class: still, calm and reflective development of a craft.
And then something changed. Jamie and Gordon and Michel blazed in and showed people that you could also cook in a shiny restaurant kitchen or in the middle of a meadow with nothing but a stone oven and a countertop made of bricks. They cooked in a masculine, sexy way, throwing ingredients around and bashing garlic cloves with all the drama of a Michael Bay epic. Suddenly everything had to be a ‘flavour explosion’ and recipes began to become competitive, every male chef offering their own claim to the ‘perfect stir-fry’ or ‘perfect pasta carbonara’. Heston Blumenthal showed that his team of man-cooks could not be beaten, for he had test-tubes and flamethrowers to make his dinner ‘ultimate’.
The world begged the man-cooks to spread their expertise and genius further among the People and so they began to branch out. They became Sir Alan Sugar in a cooking version of The Apprentice (admittedly, Raymond Blanc seems like a darling and The Restaurant was a hilarious programme), and saved schools and America from unhealthy food, and went into failing restaurants to shout at people for an hour until they started making perfect food. They went on eye-opening journeys to the Far East to find authentic recipes and ingredients, the more obscure and impossible to source the better – you would never see Delia expecting her fans to use bee pollen or dried Ethiopian tayberries, and yet when we think 'India', we're supposed to see Rick Stein.
Meanwhile, the lady-cooks just carried on caring for the family. Nice, plump, kindly cooks like the Two Fat Ladies and Ina Garten beamed at us and showed us how to make good hearty fodder for children, brunch with the girls or when your husband’s boss comes for dinner. Lady-cooks produced unbelievable amounts of cakes and tarts but never threw a whole shank of lamb into a fire like the man-cooks were doing. Their roast chicken was never ‘perfect’ but it was always practical and generic so it would please the extended family. American lady-cooks like Ina would go a step further and show viewers what napkins to buy, what soaps are nice in a guest bedroom and which flowers look perfect on the table with this meal so that every viewer could become the perfect…hostess.
Taking the word ‘hostess’ in a different direction, some more edgy lady-cooks came on the scene, making food that was equally quick, easy and family-friendly, but simultaneously rubbing their voluptuous thighs in ecstasy at the delicious heaven they were creating. Nigella, Sophie Dahl (if she’s a culinary genius then I’m a right-angled banana), That French Dame et al orgasmed onto our telly screens and showed that cooking is a pleasure and a treat – as long as you look after your own figure, of course, and as long as it was pleasurable in a sexy, boob-enhancing, not-ruining-your-plans-to-go-out-for-cocktails-later kind of way.
And where are the knowledgeable women chefs who simply share their expertise and mastership of the craft? We look upon Mary Berry as an expert, but essentially she is just an android grandma with an incredible understanding of, you guessed it, cakes and tarts. Paul Hollywood has to prop her up if anything hefty like pasties or pies or bread is in question. The female culinary world is mostly just a team of mums and grandmothers, keeping the kitchen stocked, while the team of chefs go out and do the real cooking.
The sad thing is, we love this. We lap it up. Look at Waitrose: for their latest marketing campaign, they brought a chef and a cook on board, Heston and Delia. The expert scientist and your best mate’s well-meaning mum. Heston created the posh luxury new products like Lapsang Souchong smoked salmon, and Delia made nice simply homey products like mashed potatoes. And whose products ended up being fought for on eBay for hundreds of pounds? It wasn’t the mash.
What concerns me is that this then filters down into my own family and friends. When the men in my life cook, they are never cooking the regular weeknight dinners too keep things rolling. They rarely concern themselves with including a range of vegetables and limiting the washing-up to a reasonable minimum. They do love to cook, but tend to restrict their own cooking to the occasional Friday-night showstopper, a meaty obelisk which takes four hours to prepare, uses every utensil in the kitchen, and is swimming in a reduction or marinade including seventeen exotic spices and liquors. Their food has to be met with awe and glee and applause, and they must be thanked earnestly for creating this masterpiece – and of course they must not be expected to take care of the clearing-up. Nobody thanks the women in my life for cooking. But the men expect a red carpet and an OBE. They imagine themselves as the head chefs; the women are just the scullery maids.
So I’m asking all you women out there who cook, please, stop this madness. We spent so long being oppressed in the kitchen, don’t let the men take it away from us and become the kings of that castle too. We should have TV chefs of both genders where the role of the presenter is simply to be an interesting person showcasing beautiful food. We need our media to recognise that there are women out there who are being true culinary mavericks: look at Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, founders of the River Café, one of the most legendary restaurants in the UK and worldwide; look at April Bloomfield, who has Michelin stars in two restaurants and the highest score of all time in Iron Chef America; look at Christine Ha, who just pounded Masterchef with her incredible, elegant and not at all girly dishes. These people are out there, but they’re not getting the airtime they deserve. Female chefs are businesswomen and adventurers and entrepreneurs; they are scientists and craftsmen just like male chefs, and this needs to be made clear. If we can’t be emancipated in the kitchen, how can we be emancipated outside of it?
So it’s time for us to pull away from the stereotype of the ‘cook’ and embrace the role of the ‘chef’. To take charge of the barbeque before the dudes get hold of the tongs. To make puddings that, although not pink and swirly, are so delicious you want to weep. We must go on telly and do it. And while you’re having fun doing all this, let the blokes make the pasta bake and lunchboxes for the kids for once.