Chef’s Table: Pastry isn’t the first time that the media has ignored women’s domination of the pastry sector.
Women have long been relegated to the pastry section of the professional kitchen: removed from the hot line, but also from their fellow cooks’ sightline—and from headlines. The women who toil in America’s pastry kitchens are isolated in a separate space, physically and fiscally divided from their peers, and even when dessert does get a taste of sweet, sugary glory, the camera’s eye glosses over women, painting them into their corner with pink, pastry and the dreaded “home-cooking” label.
In the trailer for Chef’s Table: Pastry, released on this site yesterday, only one woman (Christina Tosi) is declared worthy of the show, which it describes as featuring “International culinary stars who are redefining gourmet food.” Three men make the cut. (There are no people of color.) The ratio isn’t all that different from the standard Chef’s Table series, which has featured just five women in 22 episodes. The difference is that—in America, anyway—women overwhelmingly own the sweet side of the industry: 85% of baking and pastry students at the Culinary Institute of America are women, compared to 50% of overall enrollment. Seven of the 20 James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalists for Outstanding Chef are women; for Outstanding Pastry Chef, that number is 19 of 20. Chef’s Table: Pastry isn’t the first (nor, sadly, will they be the last) media to ignore women’s domination of that sector of the industry.
While the issue has roots that run deep and in a multitude of directions, it starts from the nutritional worthlessness of sugar, which originally made it a food for women and children, while men feasted on nutritionally-dense proteins. As the restaurant industry grew up, men cooked steaks on the hot line and women stayed home, making pies. And work in the home, of course, is work that comes with little or no financial gain. (A telling continuation of the fact that cooking, when done unpaid and at home, is women’s work, but when done professionally, magically transforms into the manly profession of Kitchen Confidential fame.)
That’s because, points out food writer Charlotte Druckman (author of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen), “Pastry has always been a non-necessity.” If a kitchen messes up, they apologize with a free dessert; when it comes to budgeting, it’s the first thing to get cut. So few diners order restaurant dessert that establishments without ulterior motive (such as press and/or prestige) often outsource or entirely neglect the department.
Those pastry kitchens that do exist historically provided a place to send the most dispensable workers: the women, who didn’t fit in on the male-dominated hot line. Whether women looked around and didn’t see anyone who looked like them or were expressly told that they were welcome only on the pastry side, the old boys club kept women off the hot line. Knowledge is power, and women sorted out of the learning environment of the main line, excluded from the traditional chain of kitchen command, miss out on growth opportunities—like the media spotlight.
When it comes time to put pastry chefs on television, the camera tends to look not for the women who have put in the hours in basement side kitchens, but for the men who have the most flash. Women who do go on camera are considered to have compelling stories when they tell of learning to bake pie while wearing pink at their grandmothers’ apron strings and the joy it gave them, while men show the “macho” (and more television-friendly) stories of scientific innovation, and how they made a good business proposition out of it.
Women, who long saw no version of themselves on the savory side of the kitchen and instead rose to claim their spot in the sweet side—and to receive much acclaim (all five of the current James Beard Foundation Award nominees for Outstanding pastry chef are women)—now serve the lucrative industry of edible television only to repeat a reductive and time-worn narrative. And for shows that propose to highlight the most thought-provoking, innovative ideas coming out of professional kitchens, food television tends to take look through a regressive lens.
As the public looks for examples of the industry’s best and brightest, food television does kitchens of the present and future—and the industry as a whole—a disservice by showing only a single example of what someone doing great things might look like.
Which is precisely why the issue of who is making pastries on television matters so much: when examples of greatness show us the stars from all over the gender spectrum, from people of every skin color, sexual orientation and culinary background, the industry will reap the rewards. The stories will be fresh and new and all viewers will be able to envision their future as the next Dolester Miles, Aya Fukai, Ghaya Oliveira or Fany Gerson. And as anyone who’s tasted their creations can attest to, that will bring us only more of a very good thing.