Now that Sophie Dahl is out of our kitchen, who will be the next female TV chef?

// 20 May 2010

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For the few people who care, Sophie Dahl will not be returning to our television sets to teach us how to make an eggs Benedict that’s saucy in more ways than one. Dahl had a shaky start, with mixed reviews from episode one and had more media buzz about the kitchen she performed in than her food. Soon, there were snide remarks about the way she holds a cutting knife and her many whimsical but sometimes gut-churning food-related sexual innuendos.

Premature comparisons with Nigella Lawson’s looks and finger-licking abilities long before her programme started were inevitable, and sadly that might’ve assisted its early demise. I sometimes wonder whether the golden age of mixing food and sensuality had long ended with Nigella, and that we’re now heralding the squeezing out of women from the ranks of famous cooks?

Cooking shows are dominated by men. Nearly all head chefs, not to mention those blinged with Michelin stars who make media appearances, are men. The overwhelming number of those who compete in gruelling cooking competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Menu and win, are men. Hairy bikers, men. It’s not that women do not cook of course, they are just seldom credited for it. Women’s cooking is often considered a domestic art, like cleaning and childcare.

At home, women do most of the cooking because they usually have to. Men usually cook when it’s a special occasion, an occasion to show off. But when men have to prepare food, or put under pressure or on the boil in the kitchen – to use cooking expressions, it’s likely to be a paid job and are rewarded handsomely for it. So it’s not surprising that professional kitchens are often considered to be the bastion of macho and male chauvinistic behaviour.

Pointing out the macho-ness of ‘serious’ cooking matters, because it has taken domesticity out of cooking, out of the domain of the traditionally feminine. The late Keith Floyd prepared dishes on the open decks of sailing boats while Gordon Ramsay risked life and limb to harvest shellfish off coastal cliffs amid crashing waves. Food now have hints of danger, competitiveness, and mind-blowing intricacy; ‘serious’ food is a masculine art.

Female celebrity cooks before Dahl such as the likes of Delia Smith, Nigella, Rachel Allen, on the other hand, played up the domestic goddess image; with honest to goodness home cooking that kids will love and cinched for success at dinner parties – all demonstrated without subtlety in a stagey 1950’s bliss by the tail end of the programme. The Delicious Miss Dahl walked with ease in the footsteps of her culinary foremothers and sisters because it perpetuated the myth of domestic paradise, and perhaps that was the show’s downfall, aside from the fact that her food was far from adventurous.

As someone who watches nearly every cooking programme rather religiously on British TV, including Taste in the small hours, I find the gender divide in presentation, recipes, and sometimes ingredients startling. Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl made it a point to discuss their tricky relationship with rich food, as if knowing all too well of the viewers who are quick to judge women who love their food a little too much. In one episode coded Romance, Dahl served up a sumptuous meaty shepherd’s pie only to not eat it in the end. Instead, she tucked cautiously into her lentil option. What a pity I thought. Perhaps it was an act of sacrifice, like the way vegetarians selflessly prepare non-veg food for others, except this was supposed to be something romantic in this day and age.

There are many things wrong with a cooking programme that depends plenty on the presenter’s sex appeal but little else. And as demonstrated by Ms Dahl’s early exit, sensuality and mediocre cooking knowhow make a losing combination. But with female TV chefs so few and confined to domesticity, what will be the winning recipe for the next female food star?

Comments From You

Jess90210 // Posted 20 May 2010 at 1:48 am

Nice article – I noticed too how male chefs have to add that masculine edge.

Did anyone see that christmas showing, a guy who killed a reindeer and got celebs to shoot it before they ate? The shooting was succeeded by the reindeer’s blood being drained and the carcass finally being wheeled out.

Then there’s Gordon Ramsey raising pigs to kill them. Most other celebrity male chefs add this ‘hunting’ element.

Like how Gordon Ramsey swears a lot.. couldn’t just be making delicate treacle tarts like a woman, it’s F*CKING TREACLE TARTS YOU P*NCE.

Please gimme a break!! This masculinity to show us the ‘male way in the kitchen’ is a load of nauseating bullshit.

I feel the same way about women celeb chefs who lick their fingers seductively while making spag bol. In any normal situation a person would suggest therapy.

Can’t these people just cook the damn food? Instead of virtually screaming their gender at a patronised audience?

Elmo // Posted 20 May 2010 at 8:49 am

Did anyone ever watch “the supersizers” with sue perkins and giles coren? My absolute fav

Rachel H-G // Posted 20 May 2010 at 9:50 am

For a good no-nonsense female TV chef, there’s always Allegra McEvedy, I suppose. Shows about “ethnic” cookery are more likely to feature female cooks as well, like that Chinese programme that was on a while back. I’ve forgotten the woman’s name.

My theory about female professional chefs and the media is that a woman chef is more likely to be a working chef than a figurehead, and thus has less time for media appearances.

Lee // Posted 20 May 2010 at 10:33 am

Nice article, and all very true. But I feel I have to big up my two favourite chefs, Jamie Oliver and Ainsley Harriot, because both just play at being friendly and nice but also, importantly, have that domestic vibe: they aren’t ashamed to be dads, and to cook for their kids and wives. Perhaps this is why you don’t hear from Ainsley much anymore save a book every few years, but at least Jamie is constantly on the tv and doesnt lose any of his reassuring ‘blokiness’ whilst subliminally informing men that its okay to be a family man making cakes for the kids. After all, the thing he’s most famous for is his philanthropist mission to schools, something about which is very classically “feminine” do gooder, curing social ills etc (though i admit that if a woman had done it, perhaps it wouldnt have got so much press attention….)

Kristin // Posted 20 May 2010 at 11:55 am

Great article! I also watch most cookery programmes on tv (except for Gordon and Jamie, who I cannot stand) and I hate the played-up gender divide. I did actually quite enjoy Sophie Dahl’s show, because she just cooked her favourite dishes and talked about the associations they had for her. I didn’t at all get the impression that she was trying to present herself in a cheffie way. I love Nigella Lawson’s programmes as well – the cooking and things she says about life in general (“It’s better to be happy”), not when she has her posh mates over! I hate Great Brit Menu for its overweening maleness. I think a lot of female chefs wouldn’t want to go on it (even if they were asked) because they know it will be more about their gender than the food they cook.

There was a really good cookery show on a while back, with two guys and a woman, Sylvana something, where they cooked great food together and had a laugh and there was no macho posturing at all. Pity there can’t be more like those.

Amy Clare // Posted 20 May 2010 at 12:40 pm

Very interesting post!

I didn’t watch Sophie Dahl’s programme as I found the trailers alone nauseating, however I was under the impression that she is a vegetarian – hence presumably why she ate a lentil shepherd’s pie rather than a meat one. I don’t think it’s a ‘pity’ at all that she ate the lentil version – good for her for sticking to her principles in what she ate, even if not in what she cooked – however I do think it’s a pity that a vegetarian cook had to prepare a meat dish for telly and call it ‘romantic’.

If vegetarian women are being encouraged to cook meat in the name of romance then that is indeed disturbing. Firstly because this sends the message that their principles aren’t that important really (or aren’t as important as their partners’ views), and secondly because it assumes that their partner will be both male and a meat-eater. It pushes the idea that vegetarianism is for silly girlies worried about their figure, rather than what it is – a principled stand against cruelty. It’s also a slight against vegetarianism generally – you eat your boring lentils love, but make sure you cook some ‘real’ food too, okay?

I love food and cooking, but I don’t watch cookery programmes on television any more. Between the sexism of macho male chefs of the Ramsay ilk and ‘domestic goddesses’ a la Nigella, and the relentless pushing of meat, meat, meat, there’s nothing there for me at all. The ultra-macho emphasis on hunting and violence toward animals in some cookery programmes is the ultimate turn-off.

I’d love to see a cookery programme where the food was compassionate and the chefs not acting out tired gender stereotypes… I think I’ll be waiting a while! :o/

Hannah // Posted 20 May 2010 at 1:29 pm

Jess90210, I didn’t see that show about the reindeer but wish I had. To me, it doesn’t sound especially masculine but something that anyone who wants to eat meat ought to see. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall kills his own animals and we don’t say he’s an idol of masculinity (in fact, he tends to be seen as a sissy guardian-reading hippy). Even if Ramsay and the reindeer programme are part of a dominant paradigm of masculinity amongst male chefs, I’m not sure I’d condemn them because I think it’s important for people to know what is involved in the production of food. If meat eaters find death repulsive, then they know what to do.

I love your comment about ‘virtually screaming their gender at a patronised audience’ though – whilst TV in general presents an extreme version of the gender roles we see in society, cooking programmes seem to take this to the next level.

Josie // Posted 20 May 2010 at 2:20 pm

Great article Alicia. I’m a food fanatic and an extremely enthusiastic home cook, and the macho, willy-waving, bullying style of most male TV chefs is to me the antithesis of what cooking should be about – pleasure, sensuality, sharing.

The thing I love about Nigella is that I believe she really does love food and takes pleasure in spoiling herself with it. She makes no apologies for her self-confessed greedy appetite and I love that, it’s so refreshing. I also have a lot of time for the Hairy Bikers, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, where the willy-waving is kept to a minimum, although their shows often feature some sort of competitive slot which seems a bit pointless and ‘macho-for-the-sake-of-it’. My absolute favourite is Nigel Slater – softly-spoken, mild-mannered Nigel. No shouting, swearing or bullying – just an absolute passion for food and a huge talent for engaging other people in home cooking. Hope he does another TV series soon!

Amy Clare // Posted 20 May 2010 at 4:15 pm

Hannah, I agree that people ought to see where meat comes from. Unfortunately, when animal death is covered on a cookery programme, it is often glamourised and romanticised as ‘men out on the hunt’ or it is presented as ‘just the way things are’ with no critique or even any mention that there are in fact alternatives to meat.

I think some meat-eating viewers of such programmes actually wouldn’t know what to do if they found death repulsive – because these same chefs who they are watching kill and dismember animals always remain silent on the subject of vegetarianism (let alone veganism)*, and never say, if you’re upset by what happens to animals, or you think it’s wrong, you don’t have to eat meat – here’s an example of a delicious veggie meal you could eat instead.

*Except to loudly ridicule it of course, like Gordon Ramsay.

sianmarie // Posted 20 May 2010 at 4:36 pm

josie – i agree, i love nigel slater! and such amazing recipes too!

Alicia // Posted 21 May 2010 at 3:34 am

Thanks for your kind comments, everybody. There is something else that I should have added to this post and it’s the subject of class.

It’s true that Hugh Fearnley Witingstall and Nigel Slater are probably not as macho or blokely like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, but they definitely belong to another group of men; the rather snobby, organic and locally-sourced, middle-class types. I don’t particularly enjoy watching Nigel’s programme’s very much. The level of geekery and snootiness put into the kind of ingredients he uses, however wonderful, is quite off-putting. For another post elsewhere that chimes with my feelings about people Hugh and Nigel, I recommend reading this article on Racialicious on how sustainable food always privileges white, upper / middle class white men:

Lindsey // Posted 21 May 2010 at 9:00 am

I was with Hugh F-W when he cried at chicken cruelty, but totally turned off him when he “converted” vegetarians by teaching them to butcher and savour their own meat. If he cared two figs about sustainable, cruelty-free farming he’d be encouraging people to reduce their meat intake.

Ros // Posted 21 May 2010 at 10:15 am

Local sustainable food is for the middle/ upper classes? That will surprise all the working class people I know who grow food on their council-owned allotments.

I’m really glad that there is acknowledgement of class issues at the f-word but it’s starting to seem not that we’re noticing middle class privilege but underestimating and patronising working class women.

Hannah // Posted 21 May 2010 at 4:31 pm

Alicia, it’s good to see you bringing up class in this context because it’s definitely an issue in how sustainable lifestyles are presented on TV. Perhaps less so in real life, as Ros points out.

I liked the racialicious article but I’m not too sure about how relevant a lot of it is in England. The TV presenters selling sustainability may be overwhelmingly white and male, but I’ve often found that the people doing this in their everyday lives have been influenced by Hinduism (I’m certainly one of them) – though perhaps this has changed since the white chefs made sustainability a matter of ethical points scoring amongst guardian readers. British and American traditions of vegetarianism and sustainability are very different and British vegetarianism is really multicultural in its origins – I could ramble about this for ages but should probably just recommend Tristram Stuart’s amazing The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India.

Amy Clare, I was hoping you’d comment on this post! You’re right, maybe I was being too optimistic when I suggested that seeing death onscreen would make meat eaters change their minds.. I find the idea that a vegetarian cooking a meaty shepherd’s pie is ‘romantic’ disturbing too.

Jayne // Posted 21 May 2010 at 6:18 pm

I have always thought that the TV chef arena was totally male dominated. Female chefs never seem to be shown in the cut and thrust of a high pressured restaurant kitchen, only in the home. My friend worked on the ‘Great British Menu’ – in one show, she had to show the male chef how to use one of the cooking instruments. She is a chef but on the credits, she is described a ‘home ecomomist’!

Amy Clare // Posted 21 May 2010 at 7:05 pm

Hannah: thanks! :o) I think many more viewers might change their mind about meat if said cookery programmes even acknowledged vegetarianism/veganism as a viable alternative, rather than ‘this is what happens, just accept it’. The latter attitude just encourages viewers to distance themselves emotionally from the violence and death, and see it as unproblematic. It’d be interesting to see just how many people are swayed by these programmes, though.

Lindsey: I didn’t know HFW had done that, that’s awful. One would have to wonder about just how ‘vegetarian’ these people were though if they were willing to do that. I find him such a hypocrite regarding animal welfare, but that’s another story!

Ros: I agree with you about the class thing!

polly // Posted 22 May 2010 at 9:36 am

How about someone who’s actually a professional chef? Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver et al WERE chefs before they became celebrity Chefs. How about Allegra McEvedy, for example?

polly // Posted 22 May 2010 at 9:40 am

NB McEvedy has been on TV once, but without fanfare – maybe because she’s a lesbian? Anyway there are loads of brilliant female chefs. We just don’t get to hear about them.

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