To read the New York Times food section Wednesday was to get a whole mouthful of undigested gender politics. The headline "Kitchen Chemistry Is Chic, but Is It a Woman's Place?" alone set my teeth on edge, but Laura Shapiro's article was a well-meaning look at the paucity of female chefs working in the chem labs of the new high-tech restaurants. Unfortunately, she served up the old formulas about gender and cooking -- women + food = nurture, while men + big knives = scary macho kitchen -- before carving out a new one: High technology + cooking = a place that doesn't nurture female chefs.
"But where are the women?" Shapiro wondered. "They've long been underrepresented in the upper echelons of restaurant cooking. But the imbalance is even more stark in the realm of laser-incinerated cornstarch. Round up all the women entranced by high-tech cuisine in America, and they could easily fit into a Jacuzzi. Some of the most experienced female chefs are persuaded that the new cuisine will never attract many women. It's just too ... male."
Yet Shapiro's reporting led her straight to the women who break the mold: young chefs who are embracing liquid nitrogen and methycellulose as well as eggs and milk. They too have noticed a lack of women in the high-tech kitchens they work in, but don't feel it's because of a culture they can't relate to or a pattern of discrimination against the as-yet undiscovered culinary Curies. In fact, the lack of women in the realm of high-tech cooking isn't terribly surprising -- men do tend to dominate geeky high-tech fields, especially in their infancy, but I think that it's a jump to assume that there's some sort of inherent antagonism between female chefs and avant-garde, high-tech cuisine. As Shapiro notes, historically women have been on the forefront of technology in the kitchen, as exemplified by the "home economists" of the 19th century. In the end, Shapiro suggests that the gender discrepancy may be a problem of high-tech cooking being spun as a "space-age," boys comic book world of "extreme cuisine."
And speaking of comic-book sensibility: Frank Bruni's oozing review of Robert's Steakhouse, located on the second floor of the Penthouse Executive Club, took the proverbial steak. Riddled with enough puns to make you wince, the review made a sorry attempt to address the food while ogling the strippers (or what Bruni called the other kind of "seductive flesh"). Gawker offered some hilarious commentary on the piece, but here's a peephole into the lurid little piece: "Knowing great food often pops up," Bruni embarks on "a maiden voyage" to the "pulchritudinous territory," with a group of companions "more aroused by the side dishes than the side shows." Oh, right. Then we get a blow-by-blow of his patronizing flirtations with the strippers: "She said she was running low on cabernet. I took the cue and asked if I could buy her a fresh glass. "Yes," she said. "And you can pour it on my toes." Of the restaurant's "buttery nipple" dessert, which involves a woman "straddling your lap, pouring a combination of Baileys Irish Cream and butterscotch schnapps down your throat, then squirting Reddi-wip into your mouth" [and] which costs $20 in cash," Bruni confesses: "Note to the newspaper's expense auditors: I don't have a receipt." The review goes on and on in this vein: laying down each innuendo-laden detail as if the ladies were lying on his plate and garnished with parsley. Come on, Frank, we know it must be tough reporting on all those stuffy restaurants where the hostesses actually wear clothes, but can't you do the leering on your night off?