That men are chefs and women merely cooks has long been the received wisdom of grandest reaches of haute cuisine. In 1950, Fernand Point, the inventor of nouvelle cuisine, was asked why he had never agreed to accept a woman as a student. Point responded that, "only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art". A modern chef such as Gordon Ramsay performs on the world's television screens and to his salivating, wealthy customers, but he is happy to leave the everyday feeding of his family and friends to his wife, Tana, because "home cooking" is obviously so far removed from the male-dominated and army-like world of professional cooking. Tana may have turned the tables a little by writing her own cookbook (which Gordon says he has never read) and having a TV show in the US, but she appears to have chosen to ignore her other half's famous remark that "women can't cook to save their lives" and has just got on with feeding the family.
I have a similar situation to the Ramsays (without the TV and book deal) because, while my cooking is or has become routine, my husband's fare is considered applause-worthy. The only time I ever suggested cooking for anyone other than the children he laughed. For he believes that only men can be truly great cooks. And though he is not a misogynist in real life, he certainly is in the kitchen.
This notion of a gender division between the artistic and quotidian handling of food seems to have trickled down from the professional to the amateur: "entertaining friends" (as the wonderful Robert Carrier would have put it) has become a stage where a certain sort of male can strut his culinary stuff. As Joyce Goldstein, cookbook author and former restaurateur said recently, "There are two kinds of cooks, there's mama cooks and show-off cooks – not all mama cooks are women but all the show-off cooks are men. Boys with chemistry sets – boy food is all about 'look at me!'"
My friend Liza calls this The Cassoulet Effect, after the bean, pork and sausage dish that takes days to make and is rarely appreciated quite enough by anyone who has not just climbed a mountain or doesn't have an iron gut. Rugged, but tricky and usually carnivorous cooking is now a competitive sport for the thirty- to fortysomething male.
Arrive at any (heterosexual couple's) house for dinner and you'll be greeted by a fragrant and relatively unflustered female. She will probably make the guest pop into the kitchen to say hello to her scowling, heavily perspiring boyfriend or husband. He is attempting to stir a sauce in his copper-bottomed pan and simultaneously hide his Marcella Hazan recipe book and both volumes of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers's River Café Cook Book. Anything by Nigella has had the front cover violently ripped off – for while he is not a misogynist in real life, in the kitchen he would rather serve a Fray Bentos pie than be seen referring to the culinary advice of a mere woman. He doesn't mind anyone seeing the egg-yolk-coloured book with the name Cuisine du Terroir with its ancient and uncompromising recipes for such esoteric dishing as pot-au-fey du bracconier (poacher's rabbit) or bougnettes albigeoises (potted faggots) or anything by "I'll eat anything, me" British chef Fergus Henderson.
Don't be an idiot and ask if you can help. The cassoulet cook is a lone wolf – except when he forgets a vital ingredient. When the hostess says, "we're running rather late, I'm afraid," what she means is that she had already made three evening dashes to the supermarket and the Lebanese store ("Only those pickled lemons will do!"): cassoulet man never "makes do" with what is in the cupboard, but must have the exact ingredients. She has had to soothe his fury at the guests all being bourgeois enough to arrive on time – just when his meal of jugged hare, puréed parsnips and gratin dauphin is at its most tricky. Mind you, it would all have been fine had he not decided to do a pumpkin soup, bake bread and make a chocolate and apricot tart.
Of course, you've got from the detail that I'm describing scenes I know only too well. I am married to someone who makes delicious and impressive food. There is never any question of me attempting to cook when friends come round, although I do cook the everyday stuff three or four times a week. I seem to remember that I used to enjoy cooking in the days before him, but now my confidence has been eroded by his silence when serving the sort of simple stuff (shepherd's pies, lasagne, tortilla) that my children find "buff" and his knee-jerk smothering of everything I make in Las'lick Jerk Sauce (with the strap-line "Lively up your chicken, meat, fish or stews!"). I know that he feels that I lack the attention to detail and, of course, I am of the generation where anything in the kitchen still smacks slightly of subservience. A large part of me feels happy, modern and liberated leaving the grand cooking to my man.
"You're so lucky," other women say after my husband has produced yet another spectacular meal. "It must be fantastic to live with a man who can cook this well," they simper as they finish off their second slice of treacle tart with home made rose-hip ice cream. My husband feels appreciated and sexy, whereas cooking a meal could never make me feel that. As Nigella put it, "Freedom from kitchen servitude is recent enough for women to flaunt their undomesticity – just as women of an older generation often refused to learn to type or learn shorthand."
I do sometimes long for those brilliant dinner parties of my poor but witty writer friend who often used to serve spaghetti with onions followed by a divided Toblerone on a plate. There were copious amounts of baddish wine and a lot of shouting and it was perfectly clear that it was the people who were important rather than the food. I know it sounds churlish, but there are times when the effort and care put into my husband's food just seems a bit too much. Each mouthful is marred by the feeling that each guest will have to say something that expresses their appreciation to the host – and chef – sitting exhausted and sometimes slightly grumpy at the head of the table. His face demands applause, but seems to anticipate that nothing said can quite live up to the intensity of the last five hours he had just spent in the kitchen.
It is unfair to imply that my husband only cooks to impress guests – he also tells the children that he loves them and apologises to me through the tender care he takes in preparing meals for us. Once, after a spectacular row, he baked a vast apple pie for me and left it on the side without a word, and having not spent much time with the kids, he built them a gingerbread house. Each plate of food is prepared separately with each individual in mind so that the children have come to expect portions and tastes matched to their needs rather then my random doling out. Dan is a mama-cook and a show-off cook, then. Weighing everything up, I can handle him being a control freak in the kitchen. It's just that sometimes I wouldn't mind having a bowl of cereal in front of the telly rather than a pork belly supper with lentils and black potatoes that I have to appreciate with the skill, concentration and carefully chosen words of a restaurant critic.
Battle of the sexes: Who rules the kitchen?
"Women can't cook to save their lives." - Gordon Ramsay
"Women shouldn't really work in the kitchen; they can't handle the pressure, and besides, they always have to take time off because they get headaches." - anonymous Italian chef
Less than a third of the 164,000 full-time chefs in this country are women, according to the Office of National Statistics. Of the 121 British restaurants with Michelin stars, only seven have female head chefs.
"[Women]... have better palates, a better sense of smell, a better understanding of food." - Marco Pierre White
"Yes, there is this strength. But it is a woman's strength. Being strong in the head. I run the kitchen the way I feel right, which is to be quietly strong, not to shout, and I think finally I have the respect." - Anne-Sophie Pic (the first female three-star Michelin chef in France for more than half a century.
"I could never say I'm tired, or I'm sick, or I've cut my finger," she says, "as the response would be, 'It's because you're a girl.'" - Clare Smyth, head chef at Gordon Ramsay's three-Michelin-starred Royal Hospital Road restaurant in London
"I cook with my emotions. Men think about technique first and then emotion." - Hélène Darroze at the Connaught (two Michelin stars)Reuse content