I don’t really know when my love affair with Food Network began, but it’s as enduring as many of my pop culture obsessions. I watch it all: “Cooks vs. Cons,” all of the seasonal baking shows, “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives,” “Beat Bobby Flay” and of course, the OG of Food Network competition shows, “Chopped.”
Watching four (usually professional) cooks race to make their best appetizer with 20 minutes on the clock, anything they can find in the pantry, and a mystery basket full of things like puff pastry, lamb chops and “crunchy cheese chips” (Food Network-speak for Cheetos), is immensely satisfying. The day Netflix added several seasons of “Chopped” to the queue was one of the best days of my life.
Like most competition shows, “Chopped” features short intros with each episode’s contestants, and according to a former contestant, each competitor is required to have a “narrative” that producers use to presumably drive the audience to root for them. Stories of children who wish to prove to disapproving parents that a career in the culinary industry is a valid life choice, or of a late-blooming chef proving to themselves that they can hack it in the kitchen, are tried and true pathos-infusers.
Early on in my “Chopped” obsession, I began to notice a pattern with many of the female competitors’ narratives. Many of the female chefs spoke of “beating the boys,” proving that they have what it takes, or being a beast in the kitchen, despite their appearance. Of course, this isn’t just a thing on “Chopped.” I remember a particular “Guy’s Grocery Games” competitor who really irked me by constantly saying she was going to “show these boys what a mom can do” (I get the sentiment but she said it about 10 times before the second round).Many of the female chefs spoke of “beating the boys,” proving that they have what it takes, or being a beast in the kitchen, despite their appearance. Click To Tweet
In 2015, Toronto restaurateur, Jen Agg, wrote a New York Times piece about a rare sexual harassment suit filed by a female chef. The case, which has since been settled, was filed by Kate Burnham, who alleged that she was groped, called anti-gay slurs and even assaulted with pressurized hollandaise sauce while working as a pastry chef at Weslodge, a popular, high-end Toronto restaurant. Burnham’s case made major waves in the news, not because sexist kitchens were unheard of, but because she actually reported it.
After explaining that, “sexual harassment in professional kitchens is ubiquitous,” Agg goes on to detail some of the more horrific sexist stories she’s heard from female kitchen staff members during her years in the culinary industry: the groping, the knowledge that simply bending over to pick up a pot can be seen as an invitation for harassment, the way abusive male chefs’ behavior is accepted as the price for genius, as well as an especially horrible anecdote about a head chef who put a woman’s staff meal in a metal bowl on the floor because — and this is an actual quote from Agg’s piece — “that’s where the dogs eat.”
These types of abuses have basically been considered par for the course if you are a woman who wants to cook for a living. If a woman gets a reputation for not being a “team player” it may mar, stunt, or end her career before it’s even truly begun. This is a problem that women in almost every industry face. But what is probably most frustrating is that cooking in the home is still, to this day, considered “woman’s work” by some.What's probably most frustrating is that cooking in the home is still, to this day, considered 'woman’s work' by some. Click To Tweet
The hosts of the late, great “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast frequently pointed out how quickly men rose to the top of women-dominated industries once those fields began to “professionalize.” They found this to be true of things like retail, where men who were just starting out were often considered to be “apprentices” and the women “shopgirls,” and non-profits, a female-dominated industry in which men statistically hold the highest paying jobs. The same could be said for working in the kitchen.
I can’t say that I was shocked at the realization that sexism is rampant in the food industry, but it is still perplexing. The uncreative sexist’s anti-feminist insult du jour is, “Get back in the kitchen.” And then, suddenly, when men decide that they would like to cook for a living, being a professional chef becomes a man’s game.Suddenly, when men decide that they would like to cook for a living, being a professional chef becomes a man’s game. Click To Tweet
After Burnham’s allegations hit the news, Agg was inspired to put together Kitchen Bitches, a conference dedicated to “smashing the patriarchy one plate at a time.” The first conference took place in September 2015 and granted a tremendous opportunity to get some real dialogue about industry-wide misogyny that had been shrugged off for so many years. Speakers were open about abuses they’d experienced and witnessed, spoke on the need for action and intersectionality, and took their colleagues to task for ignoring, dismissing, or perpetuating these behaviors.
And the conversation is continuing. Last November, Logo produced “Hungry,” a documentary that touched on gender equality in the restaurant industry and creating safe spaces for marginalized groups within restaurants. Earlier this year, restauranteur and “Chopped” judge Maneet Chauhan described the sexism she faced as an aspiring chef in India in an interview with Cosmopolitan. And Agg continues to call out the misogyny in her industry. Not long ago, she penned a piece for Eater, calling out chefs and her fellow restaurant owners who remain silent about the issues women in kitchens face.
“Every time news breaks of another horrific, sexist episode in a restaurant, I feel hopeful that this will be the thing that breaks the dam,” Agg wrote. Here’s hoping that something does.