"It's impossible to glean by looking and tasting whether a dish was created by a man or a woman."
On Monday night I was one of two sacrificial guys (Alinea's Grant Achatz was the other) on a panel discussion titled Gender Confusion: Unraveling the Myths of Gender in the Restaurant Kitchen. We delved into the following fascinating, potentially freighted, and cosmic question: Do women working in restaurant kitchens have discernibly different cooking styles than their male counterparts? And, can supposedly sensitive palates tell the difference?
Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin and thoughtful writer–food philosopher Gwen Hyman, co-author of Urban Italian (written with her chef husband Andrew Carmellini), were the women Achatz and I got to playfully joust with for a couple of hours at the Astor Wine and Food Center in Manhattan.
The set-up was insidiously provocative: We panelists were served five courses, each consisting of two dishes with the same principal ingredient—one cooked by a male chef, the other cooked by a female chef. After tasting each of the paired dishes, each of the panelists had to hazard a guess as to which plate was prepared by which gender.
It was an evening made to order for mayhem and humiliation (I told Grant and the audience that the guys on the panel were engaged in the can't-win culinary discussion equivalent of "Do you still beat your wife?"), all done in good fun and good humor.
So how did the panelists fare in the gender-guessing, gotcha culinary quiz? More important, what conclusions did we collectively and individually draw from the exercise? The answers, after the jump.
We all made semi-educated guesses based on points we raised in the discussion. Sometimes we were all right, other times we were all wrong. I think Cowin was right more than the rest of us. More important, what we learned is that it's impossible to glean by looking and tasting whether a dish was created by a man or a woman, because A) it's impossible to isolate the variables, and B) the men and women doing the cooking sometimes tried to outwit us by engaging in a bit of culinary cross-dressing, by cooking a dish that would be seen and tasted by the judges as being conspicuously and definitively either male or female.
All the panelists came to the discussion with some preconceived notions and cliches. Among them:
- Women chefs use spices more subtly than men
- Male chefs love to make use of lots of toys in their cooking (look out, Grant Achatz)
- Female chefs cook to nurture and feed people's souls, while male chefs cook to compete and impress
- Women chefs are more likely to cook soulful "grandmere-style" food than their male counterparts, who are much more likely to be into dazzling, technique-driven cooking
- Male chefs like to cook red meat; women chefs are much more likely to cook pink food and use edible flowers
- Women chefs are more precise. They follow instructions more carefully than men do
- Women chefs' food is more subtle and sophisticated, while their male counterparts cook gutsier, deep-flavored, testosterone-driven food
- Women chefs cook with their hearts and souls, while male chefs cook with their head and their private parts
These clichés were constantly upended by the mostly stellar efforts of the chefs cooking for us. Alexandra Guarnaschelli, chef at Butter in New York City, made squab with foie-gras-draped croutons. Sounds like a dish cooked by a man, right? That's because Alex decided to play a shell game with the panelists by making a dish that was designed to be perceived as male to the judges.
On the other hand, male mixologist Eben Freeman (Tailor) confounded us by making a seriously delicious pink drink, a rhubarb gimlet (no umbrella, however).
What conclusions could and did we draw?
Mentors influence a chef's cooking style more than gender does. Achatz's mentor is Thomas Keller, and my guess is that Keller's cooking style and food philosophy influenced Achatz more than his gender did.
All the chefs were influenced and inspired by family members of both sexes. As Achatz noted, his mother and father ran a family-style restaurant at which his dad cooked and his mom ran the front of the house. And yet his mom did most of the cooking at home.
Cooking styles, then, are a function of experience, personality, and gender.
Restaurant kitchens have traditionally been male-dominated, macho, testosterone-driven places, and it's only been in the last ten or 15 years that we have started to see the emergence of women as head chefs. (Interestingly, women chefs in California and New Orleans have led that charge.) This trend means that the role gender plays in restaurant cooking is still evolving.
The only definitive conclusion: Gender certainly affects how chefs cook, but neither the chefs nor the panelists could articulate how and why exactly.
So no brilliant, earth-shattering conclusions were drawn Monday night, but it sure was fun. A good time was had by all, male and female chefs, male and female panelists, and audience members of both sexes.
What do you think, serious eaters? Do women chefs cook differently than their male counterparts? If so, how? And do you think you can taste the difference?
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