Sex in the Kitchen

It's a curious turn of events.

First, we're told men and women emerged from the same body about 6,000 years ago, diverging in aptitude only after an unfortunate encounter with fresh fruit--a chronology approved by three of the past four presidents. Now, we learn from the more credible talk-show circuit that men and women immigrated to Earth from two distinctly different orbs, Mars and Venus.

Here's another strange twist: Way back when the rural South was an all-white enclave and decent parents retired, fully clothed, to separate beds, it was common to assert that women belonged in the kitchen.

OK, so sit-coms dominated our formative years. In TV Land, Mom twisted the Pop & Fresh can and jiggled a fork into the toaster in an effort to stab that last fragment of Pop-Tart. And somehow, in the midst of Little League games and devastating half-hour crises, she managed to cook up a 26-ounce steak for everyone in the family, plus Chachi.

So why are most professional chefs male?

This week's Burning Question stymied quite a few local experts. "It doesn't seem like it would be that way, intuitively," says Marc Cassel, executive chef at the Green Room. "It seems like it'd be the other way around." A glance through the glass of any open kitchen in the Dallas area reveals the extent of male dominance: Men occupy the various stations, men wash the dishes, men oversee the process.

The French created the model for all professional kitchens in the late 19th century, organizing food production along military lines. From the moment they receive supplies to the moment they surrender (get it?) the dish, everything operates according to a hierarchy. In this construction, the chef is a general, the sous chef a colonel and so on down the line. "There's a lot of tradition, or ignorance," acknowledges Brian C. Luscher, executive chef at The Grape. "The idea that only females could be pastry chefs, for example. It's the people who don't open their eyes to change who miss the opportunities."

Things are most definitely changing. Thirty years ago, for example, women accounted for 5 percent of the student population at the Culinary Institute of America. Today, aspiring female chefs make up a quarter of the CIA's student body. "The perception is it's hard work, sweaty work," says Lisa Kelley, executive chef at Hattie's in Oak Cliff, explaining the gender gap. "You get burns, you slice fingers, your hair is a mess and the chef's jacket makes you look three times the size you are," she added in jest. Yet only a few female chefs work in the Dallas market, among them Kelley, Joanne Bondy of Ciudad and York Street's Sharon Hage.

A number of women do fill sous chef roles in top venues like Nana and the Green Room.

"I have a female sous chef, Karin Powell," Luscher says, adding to the list. "She rocks. She can cook, and she's cute, too. She puts up with salty locker room talk, but I don't allow anything more."

The professional kitchen, indeed, is a kind of fraternal organization in the Animal House sense. Not that Bluto or Otter are poised over the stove carving rude phrases into a plate of horsemeat, but the language can be a bit raunchy. "I've worked in many kitchens where it's been just sports and dick jokes," Cassel acknowledges. "It's hard to defend our gender sometimes." He considers the ubiquitous locker room mentality a principal factor driving women away from the industry.

"You do have to put up with men talking about body parts," Kelley agrees. "You can either join in or ignore it."

She insists, however, that tradition, crude behavior, long hours and the like are not obstacles to a woman's success in the restaurant industry.

Male chefs, on the other hand, tend to admire their female counterparts simply because they survived. "If they can crank it out, I don't care who it is," Luscher says. "But if it's a female who can take it, I'm all the more impressed because I understand the pressures."

Note that the Burning Question crew wisely distanced ourselves from the gender debate, although we did scribble down a few of those dick jokes for use during the next meeting with our editor. It's our perception that gender roles began to crumble many years ago. Happenstance, more than social constraints, determine the continued dominance of men in professional kitchens.

"I just ended up doing this," Luscher agrees. "I started at age 12 as a dishwasher. A lot of guys just fall into it."

Yep, from flipping burgers at McDonald's to spewing rude sausage comparisons in a four-star kitchen--there's a career path. And, oddly enough, it's one chefs male and female appreciate. "People get into the business for the wrong reasons," Kelley says of those who consider food preparation a careful, artistic process. "They think they'll be a Dean Fearing or a Kent Rathbun. But the majority of us are in the kitchen, working, sweating."

"It's kinda like prison," Cassel concludes. "You have to prove your mettle."


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