An article in the London Times caught my attention. According to the article "Sex on a Plate" (from Monday, May 7), many cooks and food writers believe there's a vast gulf between the way men and women cook. The article's author, Shiela Keating, suggests that the differences are so obvious that you could tell just by looking at a dish if a man or a woman cooked it. She even put her assertions to the test.
I look at my own dishes and I'm not so sure. Based on the author's criteria, I'm quite sure that I cook like a girl. Honestly, were the author's generalizations true, no statement would flatter me more. I tend to look to grandmothers — my own and others' — for inspiration at the stove. The article got this boy who cooks like a girl pondering this question: are the differences between the sexes in the kitchen as readily apparent as the Ms. Keating suggests?
The author starts off persuasively. She invokes the authority of a woman so many of us greatly admire, Alice Waters. Who would dare dispute Alice? (oh, right). Alice says: "The simpler the dish, the chances are it is probably made by a woman." She adds:
"Women’s natural instincts, especially if they have children, are to be nurturing. Our main focus is to feed people something that is good for them and that will make them happy . . . some men are in touch with that side of things, but educationally and culturally they are encouraged to look at cooking from a career point of view, to see it as an artistic endeavor. They tend to be more self-absorbed and involved in their own creations and self-expression and more disconnected from what’s happening in the dining room. Instead of ‘Are people liking the food?’ they are more likely to think: ‘I am the Chef, they should be liking it’."
In her article, Ms. Keating uses the following words and quotes to describe the differences between male and female cooking styles:
Feminine: simple, honest, relaxed, spontaneous, pared-back, ingredients-led, seasonal, nurturing, nutritious, lighter, healthier, more consistent, "more concerned with substance," "a little bit more je ne sais quoi, a little more flair and finesse," "not worried about what other people are doing or what's fashionable," "doesn't matter to me how fast I can chop," "think of myself as a cook, not a chef"
Masculine: extravagant, robust, artistic, showy, experimental, self-absorbed, strict, ordered, competitive, bad-ass, bigger, stronger, bolder, high-octane, testosterone-fueled, macho, swaggering, molecular-gastronomy, wizardry, element of surprise, "need to impress," "the boys just want to get on to the most difficult section of the kitchen," "buy a fantastic piece of meat, slam it in the oven and crack open a bottle"
Looking at my own style of cooking (remember, as a man I can't help but be "self-absorbed"), every word in the "feminine" column describes the way I cook. With the exception of my navel-gazing ways, the masculine column doesn't fit me or my cooking style.
As I said, labeling my approach to cooking "feminine" would make me proud. I've gone out of my way to work at restaurants owned by women and to apprentice under female chefs. Peggy, Annie, Loretta, Barbara, Donia, Dana, and Jen are the first names of cooks I count as mentors. Amongst the few men I've cooked with, I only count Russ and Mark as mentors. And neither of them, I'd bet, would be offended if you told them they cook like girls.
My favorite cookbook authors and cooks? Mostly women. Marcella, Alice, Ruth, Rose, Judy, Patricia, Suzanne, Janet, Anya, Penelope, Samantha, Annie, Julie, Madhur, Lindsey, Claudia, and Gabrielle (let's see if anyone can correctly guess the last names of all those authors and cooks).
Need more evidence of my girlie ways? Molecular-gastronomy (or whatever you call it) doesn't interest me. Then again, neither did high school chem class. I've tried to get excited about new wave avant-garde techniques. Really, I have. I went all the way to El Bulli in Spain. I've eaten at El Cellar de Can Roca (Girona), Commerç 24 (Barcelona), and WD-50 (New York). All those multi-course meals were interesting and amusing (and pricey) ways to while away an evening. But I don't crave anything I ate those nights. Most dishes I hardly remember. With the exception of low temperature cooking and sous-vide, I find most avant-garde techniques overmanipulate the ingredients in such a way that the results detract from the overall integrity of the dish. But that's just me. What do you expect from someone who looks to grannies for inspiration?
Am I and my girlie ways merely one exception to Ms. Keating's rule? The author admits no. She mentions other, in her words, "contradictions to [her] generalizations" (Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leigh, Alastair Little, and Jeremy Lee), but I've never heard of any of them (British readers, please enlighten me). In my own backyard, I suspect that Craig, Nate, Laurence (again, guess the last names!) and maybe a dozen (or a dozen dozen) other male chefs in the Bay Area cook the type of simple, honest, ingredients-led food that the author labels feminine? Perhaps Ms. Keating would dismiss the entire Bay Area restaurant scene (myself included) as one big anomaly, a hot bed for men who cook like women?
Some evidence, on the other hand, suggests that there's an outside possibility that I cook like a boy. I like to play with knives and fire. I like curing and smoking meat and fish. I admire Mario, Anthony, Fergus, and Montreal's Martin (ha! more surnames to guess). I find Jamie amusing. I eat offal.
Wait a minute. I know a lot of women who like all those people and things too (especially Anthony, though I suspect for different reasons). Could it just be the whacked out food-obsessed crowd I hang with? Come to think of it, some of the most bad-ass swaggering macho competitive cooks I've worked with happen to be women. Also, aren't there a few women (Elena and Aki, for example) who are into avant-garde techniques? And, while we're on the topic, self-absorption is hardly unique to the male of the species. Perhaps you've heard of Madonna, Britney, or Paris. What oh what could all these exceptions mean??
Oh, I know. It means that Ms. Keating's premise is a heap of rubbish. Do we really need one more way to encourage pointless stereotypes? Didn't we get enough of that Martian men/Venutian women crap at the end of the last century? Aren't there some factors that are perhaps a wee bit more significant in influencing how someone cooks than which sex organs he or she is born with? Don't we all, men and women, have both feminine and masculine aspects?
Now that you know my take, what's yours?
Do you think you could tell the sex of the person who cooked your meal based on what the finished plate looks like? Do you think there's a big difference between the way men and women cook?