Comment: Why chefs need to ditch the machismo

Comment: Why chefs need to ditch the machismo
Liz Stevenson
Published: 3 March 2020 - 5 a.m.

Let’s talk for a moment about the glorified and much-hyped lifestyle of the contemporary chef.

The ultra-masculine, militant, aggressive, acerbic, sometimes violent and abusive character we associate with the professional chef persona, thanks to a decade of media portrayals of both real-life and fictional despots driven to perfectionism. Aspirational for many young chefs who want to achieve fame, glory and stars. A badge of honour. Except, it isn’t.

I can detail many instances of verbal and physical assault and sexual harassment throughout my career. I’ve watched colleagues navigate drug and alcohol dependency, poverty, abuse, food insecurity, mental illness, and physical decline. All this within a working environment that doesn’t readily provide tools to cope with what we can all agree is a challenging lifestyle at best.

It’s competitive and divisive. It is toxic and has nothing whatsoever to do with food.

The above scenario may have evolved into something more palatable these days, but many of my colleagues have lived this at some stage in their careers. For a long time, a macho kitchen environment was considered the most effective and efficient way to execute a successful service. After all, the kitchen brigade system developed by Escoffier takes its cue from the military. It’s not difficult to see how this milieu would appeal more easily to masculine sensibilities, nor also to see its potential to cause harm - to all genders. I don’t mind admitting here: I’m guilty of this bullish behaviour too. I can’t take back the damage that caused, but I can work towards positive change. For me personally, this involves working towards the feminine.

What do I mean by that?

Food is a naturally creative discipline, and it follows that food roles can exist beyond the traditional dining environment that we readily associate it with. Chef-led culinary spaces act as the primary focal point of contemporary food culture. However, by actively directing media focus beyond this cultural space, we naturally enable diversity and growth (both feminine principles) and minimize the ill-effects of toxic kitchen culture by widening the scope of culinary relevance. At the same time, we tap into the sharing economy. This is the premise of Her Table, a platform for women in F&B that I formed along with three (outstanding and inspirational) colleagues. It was formed out of a genuine desire to build a collective we could resonate with, at a time when we all felt it was needed.

Our goals are relatively simple but (I hope) effective:

To create linkages among peers in F&B and hospitality, especially women, to build a safe space to speak our views and talk about our various challenges and accomplishments.

To become more invested in the notion of a shared food economy, in order to better understand and legitimize our food expression – because if we bypass this, we bypass authenticity.

To develop awareness of the use of gender-discriminatory or exclusive language and imagery that can hurt, harm, or disengage.

To promote sharing over competition, and network-building over antagonistic or ego-centred rivalry.

Use of these principles is not gender-exclusive – many of my male colleagues use the same approach. By applying these feminine principles in my work, I become more naturally committed to the nurturing, communal self-expression that food is meant to embody. Can you see how these principles are also aligned with the sharing economy? And since that’s not about to go away anytime soon, I urge you to get in touch with your feminine side.

Stevenson will be speaking at the Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference on March 18.

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