Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Talia on 05/17/2012

Women In The Kitchen: The Surprising Reality

Over the past several months, I’ve begun to watch competitive cooking shows obsessively. I mean, I don’t really know how to turn on my own oven and have never cooked anything in my life, but watching food shows has given me a desire to learn how to cook something simple…someday in the far future. But while these competitive food shows are certainly good for cooking tips, I couldn’t help but notice that women are largely underrepresented.

One of my favorite shows is Chopped, where four professional chefs are given a very short amount of time to make a dish composed of three or four random ingredients. There is usually only one female competitor on each episode. Every once in a while, you’ll see two women, but it’s unusual. There was only one episode I can remember where all four competitors were female, and the rarity of such an occurrence was pointed out by one of the judges.

Iron Chef, which is probably one of the biggest competitive cooking shows out there, has noticeably few women. In the show, a chef challenges one of the Iron Chefs to a cook-off. There were no female Iron Chefs on the original Japanese version. I don’t watch the show that often, but I’ve never seen an episode with a female competitor. I don’t think my perception of the show as a boys’ club is too far off, since Wikipedia’s section on notable challengers lists twenty men’s names.

To the Food Network’s credit, teams of judges on these shows tend to be closer to equal in terms of gender representation (although not quite). Of the 18 professional chefs and restaurateurs that have served as judges on Chopped, seven are female, and two out of five judges that have served on every season are female. There’s almost always at least one or two women on the judging panels of Iron Chef, Iron Chef America, and Next Iron Chef. On every season of The Next Food Network Star, two out of four judges were female.

Also, interestingly enough, the pastry and dessert shows feature more women than men. Cupcake Wars, where competitors have to bake themed cupcakes for an event, is Chopped’s opposite: usually there are three female competitors and one male, and every once in a while there are two men. Sweet Genius, pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel’s way to find up-and-coming dessert artists, usually features two women and two men. Challenge, an extreme cake competition, also averages out at two men and two women. Perhaps this is because desserts are seen as less intense or less difficult to prepare than “serious” gourmet cooking, and therefore women are allowed to participate in equal numbers (even though that’s bullshit).

If these shows are supposed to represent reality, it surprises me that there aren’t more women in the professional cooking field. The Food Network seriously needs to work on equal representation of men and women chefs in their shows.

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  • Mara @ at 9:11 pm, May 17th, 2012

    I completely agree with your opinion about how there should be more women on Chopped. It’s one of my favorite shows too! However, growing up in the restaurant industry (my dad’s a chef) I have to say that the number of women in the kitchen in real life is actually substantially less than the number of men. It’s maybe one or two on the line a night and the rest of the cooks are all men. On the other hand, like the pastry shows, most pastry chefs are women. This is not necessarily because pastry is easier, but it is because the hours are better on families. A pastry chef goes in early but is out by 5 or 6, while a cook goes in later but is there until 11 or 12 at night.

  • Kristen A @ at 2:56 am, May 18th, 2012

    What’s funny and what many people don’t realize is that desserts and/or any dishes that require baking are much harder to prepare than regular appetizer or entrees! I think it’s maybe more along the lines of pastries and desserts being “girly” than easy to prepare?

    It’s super interesting that the judges seem to be more in equal numbers, since the food critic world is notoriously male dominated.

    (Worked in food service at some 3 bell restaurants, lots of chef friends.)

  • Anna @ at 2:14 pm, May 18th, 2012

    Chef = public sphere

    mom in kitchen = private sphere

    We still live in a world based on separate sphere ideology.

  • Greenconsciousness @ at 10:59 am, May 20th, 2012

    It is very bad that the entire food channel has no vegan or even vegetarian shows to teach healthy cooking. The real revolution is happening in the healthy eating area as Michelle Obama is pushing with her white house garden and school nutrition programs. As it is now, the Food network is just a propaganda machine for factory farms constantly pushing meat and dairy. Witness Paula what’s her name — having diabetes and pushing a way of cooking and eating that made her sick and is killing her. Now she is pushing a pill to save us from her way of cooking. She has a contract with the pharmaceutical companies to advertise chemical solutions. So look critically at what is pushed by mass media — they take something we love and need and instead of refining our knowledge and skill they pander to our lowest instincts just to make a buck off our needs. I have been writing them asking for improvement for a year. I will bring that letter here in another post.

  • Greenconsciousness @ at 11:10 am, May 20th, 2012

    So let me make my point in conclusion. Where you find sexism – where men control a field but SELL to women; you will also find that WHAT they are selling is NOT good for women. Whether it is the fashion industry or the entertainment industry or the food industry built on pain and exploitation of the resource used to sell sell sell, when the basis is male dominated be careful — question whether WHAT you are being sold is in your best interests or only serves to profit a very ugly system produced by the patriarchy.

  • Gee @ at 11:54 am, May 20th, 2012

    There should be more women on Chopped? OK. But you do know that the show isn’t a reality completion show with amateurs and “regular people”, right?
    It’s a show that is about competition between professional chefs, caterers, private chefs. In other words, people in the
    Food Industry: An Industry that is and has historically been heavily male.
    I think the Food Network and Cooking Channel has been instrumental in busting the myth that men don’t cook.
    Back in the day, a boy who *wanted* to be in a kitchen was given the side-eye…and a baseball…and told to go outside and “be a boy”.
    Now, boys want to be in the kitchen and play with fire! And Chefs are now like Rock Stars!
    And Girls are now wanting to be chefs, and break into that male-dominated level.

  • Mara Jade @ at 12:44 pm, May 21st, 2012

    Just so you know, the representation in Chopped is actually fairly accurate.

    When you’re talking professional, high up level chefs, there are very few women. Oddly enough, there is an old way of thinking that says that women are too emotional to handle the intensities of the kitchen when it’s professional.

    Goodness knows why, as it’s the one place many seem to think women belong. -_-;;

    But yeah, there aren’t very many professional female chefs, so it’s not very surprising that there aren’t many women on Chopped. They try really hard to get women on the show from what I’ve seen…. Most episodes I’ve seen have at least one female competitor, which is actually a pretty good start to showing that women can cook with the best of ‘em. It’d be better if it was even, but the field itself isn’t even. Just so you know.

  • rain @ at 7:45 pm, May 25th, 2012

    i’ll keep this in mind for the next bloke who thinks women should be in the kitchen…

  • aimee @ at 3:55 am, July 12th, 2013

    it isn’t necessarily the lack of female competitors that gets to me…it’s the subtle sexist remarks made by both the male and female judges. plus, women rarely win when they are on. i’ve stopped watching.

  • Leah @ at 12:09 am, April 23rd, 2015

    I appreciate your take on this issue. As a former professional chef/baker myself, I love watching these competitive cooking shows like Chopped, Iron Chef/America, Cutthroat Kitchen, and recently, Cupcake Wars. I googled “cupcake wars is sexist” to see if anyone else noticed the pattern I did: The final two competitors must design a display on which to serve their cupcakes. They are given the help of two ultra-masculine male carpenters: bearded, hunky-lumberjack types, always sporting flannel shirts and tool belts. The finalists also get the help of “4 bakery assistants” each. At this point, the host usually greets the bakery assistants with a “Hey ladies,” and I find it totally sexist that (to my knowledge) there has not once been a SINGLE male bakery assistant, and there has never been a female carpenter. This is the model of every single episode. I would love to hear feedback about this and if anyone has wondered about this as I have. There are enough sexist cliches within the food industry, they don’t need help from Food Network.

  • Sdb @ at 11:40 pm, February 23rd, 2016

    I find chopped sexist. Women are often chopped for ridiculous reasons. I just got done watching one where a man not only forgot a basket ingredient, but overcooked his meat, but the woman was chopped over semantics; i.e. the dish wasn’t what she called it.

  • MissBrownEyes @ at 9:11 pm, July 2nd, 2017

    I’ll piggyback off of what Sdb said above. Not only are the women more harshly judged on any of the cooking competition shows, but generally if you listen to the commentary provided by the women judges of the competitions, they are ultra hard on the competing chefs. Now I’m not saying it should be a “good old girls” situation either, but I often get the feeling that the few well known chefs that are at Food Network actively put down other competing female chefs in order to retain their status in the food/competitive cooking world.

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