The mama chef

Do female chefs cook differently from male chefs?

By Catherine Price

Published June 26, 2007 4:28PM (EDT)

Here's an odd one from the San Francisco Chronicle: an essay by Mike Weiss that asks, "What is it about the cooking of women chefs that makes it more memorable, more comforting than that of men?"

I'm sorry, come again? Weiss was inspired to research the piece -- for which he interviewed and spent time with a bunch of famous chefs -- by a lingering question in his mind about why three of the most memorable meals he has eaten have been at restaurants with female chefs. As he puts it, "I've long wondered if the reason was that, at the highest level, women cooked differently from men."

He then goes on to interview top women chefs to see if they agree with what seems like a pretty sexist -- even if complimentary -- notion. And some seem to buy his argument.

"Listen, there are two kinds of cooks, there's mama cooks and show-off cooks," Joyce Goldstein, the cookbook author and chef of the former Square One restaurant, is quoted as saying. "Now, not all mama cooks are women but all the show-off cooks are men. Boys with chemistry sets. Boy food is about: 'Look at me!'"

Ann Cooper, who runs the Berkeley school food program, and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse both agree with Weiss that women have a different attitude when it comes to cooking. Waters is quoted as saying, "I think there's just a nurturing built into women because of children. If other things don't interfere, obviously the instinct one follows is to give somebody else something good for them ... With men, that can get confused with pursuing a career. I just think it's difficult for women to disconnect nurturing and expressing our creativity. But it's great to have a balance."

Don't get me wrong. I love Chez Panisse like the rest of them -- and Waters later points out that she likes having both genders work side by side in her kitchen. I also agree that there's a difference between cooking something that tastes and feels good and creating some elaborate tower of micro-greens that aims to amaze, not necessarily to satisfy. If you approach food from the traditionally female standpoint of creating something to nurture and feed your family, you'll have a different attitude than if you cook as a career with the aim of impressing strangers. So if you buy the idea that women traditionally have cooked for families, whereas male chefs are just that -- chefs -- it makes sense that there'd be a difference. But I think that has less to do with gender than it does with goals. And at the top echelon of cooking, I find it hard to believe that men and women have intrinsic differences -- after all, becoming a top chef requires a serious drive to impress strangers.

Weiss ultimately comes around. After being served a piece of succulent guinea hen prepared by the male chef de cuisine at Boulevard, he begins to conclude that despite the name, not all "mama cooks" are women (as Goldstein previously pointed out). Being a mama chef depends more on your "sensibility."

But, dude, if that's your conclusion, why do we have to read an entire article based on the assumption -- which you discount at the end -- that being female means one cooks a different sort of food? Far more interesting, I think, is how we got from thinking that cooking was best left to the womenfolk to our current obsession with celebrity chefs, many of whom are male. (Or rats -- is anyone else out there excited for Ratatouille this weekend?)

In one of the more interesting sections of the article, Weiss points out that when took a poll of restaurant professionals, it found that 91 percent of executive chefs were men, and that they were earning on average 20 percent more than their female counterparts. And one of the causes of this discrepancy is, surprise, surprise, that being a full-time chef makes it difficult to be a full-time parent. (Mandatory nights and weekends, anyone?)

Anyway, I find Weiss' thesis for much of the piece annoying, but it's interesting -- if disconcerting -- to hear that some of the top female chefs out there think that their talent in the kitchen has something to do with their ovaries.

And I appreciate Nancy Oakes, co-executive chef and part owner of Boulevard, for serving Weiss that delicious male-prepared guinea hen and pointing out that "because it was the domain of women ... some men had to take it to a show-off level to make it OK. But I don't know how much it has to do with men and women. Except woman restaurateurs ... are maybe afraid to go out of business, so they give people what they want."

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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