How Women Yielded the Cooking Profession to Men

Estrella Gutiérrez interviews Venezuelan chef HELENA IBARRA

HAVANA TIMES, June 14 (IPS) — “Women didn’t want to be slaves any more, or work professionally at what they were trying to liberate themselves from,” renowned Venezuelan chef Helena Ibarra told IPS, explaining why women have taken so long to compete in a workplace as symbolically feminine as the kitchen.

Ibarra, 51, who runs the kitchen in a five-star hotel in Caracas, is famous for her Venezuelan gastronomic creations, blending natural foods and local traditions, including those of indigenous peoples, to produce highly personal aesthetic and taste sensations.

She spent part of her childhood and youth in France, where she took a degree in land-use planning, and had “the privilege” of being awarded the accolade of three Michelin stars, along with colleagues who included disciples of Paul Bocuse, the father of nouvelle cuisine.

She recently launched her book “La cocina extra-ordinaria” (Extra-ordinary Cuisine), which describes her culinary offerings. Her gastronomical metaphors appear in chapter headings like “La naturaleza” (Nature), “El imaginario” (The Imaginative World), “Emociones” (Feelings) and “Helena en el país de las maravillas” (Helena in Wonderland).

Recipe titles in the book include “Merienda de locos” (The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party), “Encuentro del sombrerero y la mariposa” (The Hatter and the Caterpillar) and “Mirando a través del espejo” (Through the Looking Glass).

Some say women have been marginalized from professional cooking because it takes strength, long hours on one’s feet and a great deal of sacrifice. Others say women wished to avoid doing in the public domain what they were required to do in private. What is your analysis?

HELENA IBARRA: They didn’t want to be slaves any more. When the world of work opened its doors to women, they turned down cooking because they weren’t interested in it.

To them it was a chore and an obligation that they wanted to be free of; they wanted to be something other than cooks in the new world of work they had conquered. They did not want to inherit the slave status of their mothers, whose undervalued work it was to cook and raise their children.

What interest could they possibly have in peeling potatoes and doing the dishes, when they had to do the same things at home? Women have yielded professional cooking to men, because it wasn’t part of our liberation process. And that’s why we took so long to fight for our place in it.

Throughout history, women have been found in the kitchens of inns and boarding houses, but not in palace kitchens. Why?

HELENA IBARRA: Because women had no access to power, except as witches. Even today, a woman is admired and revered as a sorceress.

When a woman wanted power, she was called a witch. And then there is the question of money. Restaurants were conceived as businesses, and running them required a chef, or boss, which is what the word means.

He could serve bad food or treat the staff poorly, but his mission was to make a profit. And one boss has to measure up to another boss. Women weren’t allowed to reach that position, even though the chef might have been recreating his mother’s recipes.

Moreover, mothers base their actions on concepts that are very different to those of a business. Love has no cash register, and women experience cooking as something creative and linked to their emotional life, even when they are chefs.

Beyond gender roles, there is an intrinsic bond between mothers and cooking. Women are the ones who breastfeed and enact the symbolism of nutrition, food and tastes; this is undeniable in our culture, no matter who does the cooking at home.

Bocuse often says that women are the primary cooks, although top chefs’ associations exclude women. Is there misogyny in haute cuisine?

HELENA IBARRA: When I am asked to describe myself, I say I’m the long-lost daughter of Sigmund Freud (the father of psychoanalysis), and as such, I would say that in a world controlled by men, they are quite incapable of handing over to women the realm of cooking, so closely related to creation, to the emotions and to human origins and pleasure.

That is why they try to keep professional cooking a closed circuit, because of the power factor.

Men conquered the kitchen, which was the realm of women, while women were leaving it in order to conquer the male world of work.

But a major change has occurred, because there were no women chefs before and now they do exist, just as there are more and more cooking schools with equal numbers of men and women students, including schools for haute cuisine.

Nowadays, when women’s identities are much more robust than men’s, and when it is hard to find a chef to bring home or take to bed, even in the world of gastronomy male power is in retreat, and women are making strides.

Experts talking about your cooking use terms like feelings, subtlety or seduction, which they rarely use about male chefs. Does cuisine have a gender?

HELENA IBARRA: Above all, it’s the way men perceive women, it’s a cultural question: they find it hard to talk about us while stripping us of what they admire about our gender.

I defend certain issues because I am a woman, but I have some very “masculine” products, dishes with a precise goal and phallic shapes, like the “tepuy” (mountains with vertical sides and flat tops, found in Venezuela’s Guayana massif) in its jungle, which is in great demand from men.

When they call me seductive, I think it’s fabulous, but the term is theirs. In “Helena in Wonderland”, my most creative work, there are aggressive dishes such as bleeding ribs, which are very much my own creations, but do not fit the image required of me.

There is no such thing as female or male cuisine, but I affirm my femininity and I do not disguise it or assume masculine characteristics when I enter the kitchen.

You are critical of Spanish chef Ferran Adriá’s “molecular gastronomy”.

HELENA IBARRA: In my view, understanding technical processes, like how molecules work, has to be at the service of playing with the creative universe.

Adriá is a genius, but he represents the peak of a man’s magic without accepting his female side, without breaking with the intellectual and technical discourse that arises from the laboratory, which has given cuisine a new language, but which fails on the human plane.

They say his cooking is a unique experience that must not be missed, but people do not go back again. And if cooking is love, what a pity that it should be for one night only. In my view, behind every male chef there is a frustration, which Adriá expresses.

Freud said men wear aprons to play at being women. And cooking is complex, it requires a comprehensive sensitivity which includes the feminine, and to do that men must break with the obsession of being better than their mothers, in the sense that she makes delicious beans, but hasn’t a clue about creating this foam that I know how to make.

But a lot of young men are choosing to go into gastronomy. Is this a break from their traditional role?

HELENA IBARRA: Yes, of course. They are appalled by conventional careers and prefer this creative path which was previously forbidden to them. Young people are also liberating themselves from their historic burdens in the kitchen.

Let us not forget that food is power and a business, and cooking is a very complex profession, which directly provides pleasure, but is also about providing nutrition and improved living conditions.


One thought on “How Women Yielded the Cooking Profession to Men

  • June 14, 2011 at 11:31 am
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    With regard to the status of and the liberation of women, we are developing our US movement’s maximum program around the idea that the socialist Cooperative Republic–through its revamping of the means by which socialist government would get its revenues–would be able to offer “wages for housework” in some optimal form.

    This demand–which probably could be updated to something like “compensation for housework”–emerged out of the women’s liberation movement long ago. Neither private monopoly capitalist nor state monopoly socialist society however can bring it to fruition. Modern cooperative socialism, by contrast, could make it a reality.

    Nothing is more emblematic of true socialism than the liberation of both women and men from the negative aspects of traditional domestic serfdom.

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