Review: Cheffes de Cuisine

Rachel E. Black, Cheffes de Cuisine: Women and Work in the Professional French Kitchen. University of Illinois Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-0-252-04400-7 (hbk); ISBN: 978-0-252-08605-2 (pbk); ISBN: 978-0-252-05293-4 (ebk). Xxi + 227 pp.

John P. Murphy (Gettysburg College)

When journalist Charlotte Druckman (2019) recently asked more than one hundred female chefs and food writers what word they wished people would stop using to characterize them, the term “badass” made it to the top of the list. Described as a backhanded compliment, this word, Druckman’s interlocutors maintained, reinforced the stultifying conventions of maleness that dominate the professional kitchen, suggesting that women needed to “man up” or get out of the way. I was reminded of Druckman’s finding when reading Rachel Black’s fascinating new account of women working in professional kitchens in France. Central to Black’s study is the question of how women have managed to carve out space for themselves in France’s highly competitive, male-dominated culinary field. Although Black found that some of the female chefs she studied did in fact conform to the bulling and bullish behavior characteristic of their male counterparts, not all of them did. Her study offers a nuanced exploration of gender in the culinary arts.

To be sure there is no shortage of books, whether academic or popular, on France’s rich culinary history and traditions. Yet, little attention has been paid to women’s experiences in the professional kitchen. This neglect is all the more surprising given that women have over the past several decades been entering the culinary arts in increasing numbers in France, even outpacing men in some forms of professional certification, such as the BTS (brevet de technicien supérieur). Based on archival and ethnographic field research centered mostly in and around the city of Lyon, Black’s book aims to fill this gap.

Often celebrated as the “gastronomic capital” of France, Lyon was a strategic choice for this research. The city’s long history of women cooking professionally—the famed mères lyonnaises—sets Lyon apart from other French locales and provides Black with an anchor for thinking about women’s relationship to food in general and to professional cooking specifically. How, Black explores, does this exceptional history articulate with women’s contemporary experiences working in professional kitchens in France? This question leads Black first to study historical representations of the mères lyonnaises. The book is however primarily focused on the present, especially the current political moment marked by the #MeToo movement, with its calls for gender equality across professions. To get at women’s experiences today in French restaurant kitchens, Black combines ethnographic observations from her own work as a student and an apprentice in a culinary program in France with interviews among a variety of women occupying various positions in France’s culinary industry, from lowly apprentices to celebrated chefs.

In chapter 1, Black traces the development and circulation of what she calls the “legend” of the mères lyonnaises (26-27). Black insists on the notion of legend since although little actual information on the mères lyonnaises exists in the official historical record, many of Black’s interlocutors in Lyon brought up these pioneering women when discussing their own forays into the culinary industry. What functions, Black asks, does the legend of the mères lyonnaises serve today? While she notes that this legend helps women bridge their domestic and professional roles, she ultimately concludes that the narrative is limiting insofar as it reinforces gendered expectations about what women should cook and how they should act in the kitchen. This is not surprising since, as Black explains, the legend of the mères lyonnaises has largely been shaped by men’s voices, including those of food critics and chefs, especially Paul Bocuse, a Lyon native whose own fame has eclipsed that of the mères. In addition to providing important context for the remainder of Black’s study, this chapter offers a useful discussion of the development of different types of cuisine in France, including cuisine bourgeoise, cuisine gastronomique, and haute or grande cuisine.

Chapter 2 builds on Black’s discussion of the mères lyonnaises by examining Lyon’s famed bouchons. These small, often rustic restaurants started out as working-class eateries and had a clear gendered division of labor: men served wine out front, while women cooked hearty, local fare in the back. Today, bouchons are popular tourist destinations and, as such, offer fertile ground for exploring the construction of authenticity. Through interviews with women working in bouchons, Black concludes that these establishments, much like the legend of the mères lyonnaises, ultimately hold women back, even if, thanks to their familial atmosphere and blurring of the lines between domestic and public life, they have offered a venue for women to cook professionally. Black writes, “Women’s work is not necessarily legitimate because of what women are doing now but because it fits into a narrative structure that was valid in the past, which can make it hard for women to move forward, to innovate and define what Lyonnais cuisine is in the present and what it will be in the future” (81). In other words, the expectation that the women cooking in Lyon’s bouchons adopt a stern, motherly persona left little room for them to be anything else.

The topic of motherhood and the challenges it presents for professional women are a focus of chapter 3, in which Black relates her own experiences as a student and apprentice in a French culinary program. During the months of culinary training Black undertook, she was pregnant and describes the reactions of her instructors and fellow students to her growing abdomen. Women’s bodies in general—and pregnant ones in particular—tended to be described as ill-equipped to handle work in the professional kitchen. Men, Black was repeatedly told, were better suited to deal with the kitchen’s cramped quarters, the heft of the industrial equipment, and the intense heat generated by the commercial stoves. Tracing the military origins of the brigade system of kitchen organization, Black offers a fascinating discussion of the French term formation, which, she explains, translates as “training” but carries an embodied quality. Training to become a cook in France is about more than learning recipes and mastering techniques; it is a process that is assumed to physically change bodies into well-oiled machines. In the professional kitchen, women’s bodies were viewed as too weak to successfully undertake this transformation; they were, in short, seen as matter out of place. Ultimately, this chapter shows how culinary education in France works to prop up gender stereotypes and silence dissenters.

That is not to say that no women have been successful in France’s culinary industry. Chapter 4, which is centered on interviews the author conducted with two female chefs, explores the experiences and perspectives of women who have made it to the top of the profession. The backgrounds of the women Black interviewed—one moved to France from Brazil and the other hailed from a family occupying a prominent position in Lyon’s culinary scene—suggest that gaining access to elite status in France’s culinary industry may be as much a factor of one’s social, cultural, and symbolic capital as it is a matter of raw talent. In addition to culinary school, Black explains that the judges of prestigious competitions, including the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and the Bocuse d’Or, as well as members of powerful professional associations, such as the Toques Blanches, function as powerful gatekeepers, determining who has access to the best jobs and the financial resources to open a restaurant. Few women, Black observes, pass muster. However, instead of attributing this to gender bias, many of these organizers repeated well-worn stereotypes, arguing that women simply lacked a competitive spirit or were too weak to successfully complete the demanding challenges of the competitions. According to Black, this hyper-competitive atmosphere sometimes has the deleterious consequence of dissuading the few women who do manage to succeed from helping to promote other women within the profession. Black sees however a glimmer of hope. Toward the end of the chapter, she notes that in the age of #MeToo women chefs have increasingly become the focus of media attention; this, she maintains, may enable them to “tak[e] back their story, and this time as central actors” (145).

If chapter 4 centers on the exceptional women who have gained success within the male-defined confines of the culinary field, chapter 5, by contrast, looks at women who have questioned these patriarchal organizational structures and endeavored instead to create new modes of being and doing within the professional kitchen. Building on the theoretical framework developed by Francine Deutsch (2007), Black describes this practice as “undoing gender” (149). In opposition to the domineering male performance typical of many restaurant kitchens, the three women whose stories Black explores in this chapter emphasize respect, empathy, and dialogue. They reject the hierarchical logic of the brigade system, seeking instead to prop each other up through mentorship and emotional support. Moreover, they challenge traditional kitchen practices, finding, for example, creative ways to use leftover food rather than simply discarding it. Black concludes this final chapter with a discussion of what these women call “nouvelle cuisine lyonnaise”—a movement that blends the old with the new, while embracing culinary diversity. Ultimately, this chapter shines a light on the alternative creative spaces some women are carving out for themselves within the culinary arts.

Recognizing the marginal space most women working in the culinary industry still occupy, Black issues a “call to arms” in the conclusion of her book (181). Culinary education, she insists, must be reformed. In this regard, Black makes several recommendations, including increasing the number of female chef instructors, creating networks of support specifically for women, and implementing antibias training for both instructional personnel and students. Once women have completed culinary school, Black argues that they must fight for greater representation in culinary competitions and entry into the most prestigious professional organizations. This, she maintains, will provide women with the public recognition and social networks necessary for securing access to financing. Finally, she argues that increased attention must be paid to the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career in the culinary arts. “It is ironic,” she states, “that Lyon’s most famous female culinary figures were known as mères, while the professional kitchen has proven inhospitable for mothers” (188). Black suggests that accommodations, including increased maternity leave, greater access to childcare, and more flexible working hours, will help women succeed as professional chefs. She concludes with a brief discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions to Lyon’s culinary scene it has wrought. Could these disruptions generate more spaces for women? Black seems to think so. “For the gastronomic capital of France,” she writes, “the future is quite possibly female” (196).

This ethnographic account of female chefs in France has many strengths. It makes an important contribution to food studies not only by exploring how women’s reproductive and productive work have come to be interlinked in the popular imagination but also by illuminating the constraints, challenges, and opportunities this linkage represents for women in the culinary industry. In the specific case of France, Black’s monograph is a welcome complement to the male-centered approach that has characterized most accounts of professional cooking. Rich in ethnographic description, especially the passages detailing Black’s own experiences as a culinary student and apprentice, this study is, moreover, careful not to paint the women whose stories it examines with overly broad strokes. By insisting on the complexities of these individuals’ lived experiences, Black shows how gender may be experienced, understood, and negotiated in different ways. Finally, although focused on women in the culinary arts in France, this book provides important insights into the causes and consequences of gender inequalities more broadly. Black’s findings could thus aid in combatting gender bias in other professional settings where women have historically been marginalized or excluded.

There were a few areas where I wish Black had pushed her analysis further. With its republican tradition rooted in the principle of abstract universal equality, France offers particularly fertile ground for exploring how gender and sexual difference—among other distinctions—are understood, negotiated, and used in the working out of everyday life. While reading Black’s book, I was reminded of Joan Scott’s (1996) classic study of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French feminists who struggled to reconcile the paradox arising from their fight for equal rights. On the one hand, these feminists sought to erase sexual difference from the list of meaningful categories within French politics; one the other hand, by acting on behalf of women, they highlighted the very difference they claimed to be irrelevant. Many of the female chefs Black interviewed were faced by the same dilemma, albeit in a different context: they wanted to be treated as equals to men within the professional kitchen. However, they, as women, faced challenges men did not, not least of which those linked to motherhood. As Black argues, thinking through their responses to this dilemma offers important lessons for addressing gender and sexual bias in the culinary industry and other professional settings. I wonder though what her findings might tell us more broadly about the future of French universalism itself in an era where calls for the recognition of difference are becoming ever louder. Along these same lines, I wanted to know more about other forms of discrimination and exploitation. Black notes in her book that many of the young people entering the culinary industry in France today hail from modest backgrounds, and in France race and class are linked, with immigrants and their descendants generally occupying lower social positions. Although Black broaches class and race in chapter 3, I found her discussion of these topics limited. In the end, engaging further with how class, race, and gender are understood and managed specifically in the French context could help Black and her readers better assess the feasibility of the reforms she outlines in her conclusion.

These persisting questions notwithstanding, Cheffes de Cuisine: Women and Work in the Professional French Kitchen enhances our understanding of the challenges women face in the culinary industry today. Rich in ethnographic detail and engagingly written, it will appeal to researchers in anthropology, food studies, and women’s studies; thanks to the text’s readability, I think it would work particularly well in undergraduate classes. Moreover, the book will provide policymakers, administrators, and others working to combat discrimination and foster inclusion and belonging in professional settings and beyond a useful blueprint for advancing these efforts.

Works Cited

Deutsch, Francine M. 2007. “Undoing Gender.” Gender and Society 21 (1): 106-27.

Druckman, Charlotte. 2019. Women on Food: Charlotte Druckman and 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters. New York, NY: Abrams Press.

Scott, Joan Wallach. 1996. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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