Do men really make the best chefs?
Last night's MasterChef final, like so many before it, was an all-male affair. So is the competition just too hot for women? Tom Peck and Sunjay Kakar find out
Thursday 08 April 2010
"A woman's place is in the kitchen," said Aeschylus in 467BC, a rallying cry echoed by such enlightened thinkers as Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote and the Seventies Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O' Sullivan ("I'm all for a woman/ who can make it on her own/ But I believe /a woman's place is in the home," he crooned in 1974, four years after The Female Eunuch became an international bestseller).
But there is one kitchen which evidently still feels somewhat alien to the fairer sex, and it's arguably the most famous of them all. Last night 34-year-old sales director Dhruv Baker became the fifth male in a row to be named champion of MasterChef. Since the BBC show's re-launch in 2005, sans Loyd Grossman, only one woman, Thomasina Miers, has lifted the trophy. And as last night's finalists battled it out over saffron and ginger poached lobster tail and blue cheese ice-cream, all three competitors, as last year, shared one seemingly crucial ingredient: a generous dollop of Y chromosome.
So why can't the ladies stand the heat? Is it the sharp forks and spiky tongues of judges Greg Wallace and John Torode? The pressure of the clock? The relentless soundtrack of high-energy breaks and beats that have come to characterise the series?
For Miers, now a successful food writer and restaurateur, it is a mystery. "John and Greg particularly made me feel that I was strong enough in the kitchen to work as a professional chef, which wasn't something I had ever dreamed about before MasterChef," she said. "I don't think being male or female has anything to do with whether you are a brilliant chef. Both men and women are very strong in the arts and it is surely down to the individual whether they are talented in the kitchen."
That the show should have become so male dominated seems even more surprising given Torode's recent comments on the subject. "Females are far better," he told Hello! magazine. "They have a feel, a touch, a natural love for food and they don't show off. It's not about technical ability, it's not about 'Look at me', it's about 'Here's the food on the plate'."
According to a spokesman for the series: "We do not offer places on the competition based on gender and the judges base their selection on the plate of food in front of them, not the sex of the person who cooks it."
Certainly anyone who saw the semi-final would be hard pressed not to agree. Food critic Kate Spicer physically wretched on tasting the gin and tonic jelly with white chocolate mousse offered by the last lady to be eliminated, 2010 semi-finalist Stacie Stewart – and that would have proved the final lump in the custard for any competitor, male or female.
Likewise Nargis Chaudhary, the other female semi-finalist, has subsequently described her terminal meal of red mullet with caramelised hazelnuts as "a monumental cock-up" and "basically shit". Ms Stewart, a 25-year-old PA from Sunderland, has no complaints about the show. "It's got nothing to do with sex," she said yesterday. "Absolutely nothing. If it were, if anything they'd have put me through because I'm a girl. I just had a bad day at the office."
But elsewhere, it seems a woman's place is not in the kitchen. The 2010 Michelin Guide gave its coveted stars to 140 restaurants in the UK. Only 11 have a female name above the door.
For Daksha Mistry, a 2006 BBC MasterChef female finalist who now runs Daksha's Fine Dining, a Gujarati catering company, discrimination in the industry is alive and well: "Of course there is sexism in the culinary industry," she said. "Most restaurateurs are more likely to hire a young man because they can run around the kitchen faster with heavy pans and create more business. Men have greater muscle power, yet women are calmer in the kitchen."
But celebrity chef John Burton Race says: "It is a fact that men are the best cooks, professional or not. Industrial kitchens may have heavy equipment, but men are the best cooks because they are more passionate and take cooking more seriously."
Martin Blunos, a chef on the Channel 4 programme Iron Chef UK, has a different take: "The kitchen is classically male dominated and there is a perceived image of a cauldron of heat, sweat and testosterone. If women are in the kitchen, it takes out the male brashness. Men step up and give better than their all because they feel they shouldn't be outshone by a woman. This makes for a better product for the customer."
Stacie Stewart impressed many top chefs as part of her MasterChef experience. She is now back in the North-east working as a PA and running an online bakery, and has some traditional views on the subject. "It's a high-pressure environment. Hard work and long hours, late into the night. If you want to have kids and start a family, I don't see how you can do that and be a chef.
"I'm not saying women can't be top chefs. Of course they've got the ability. But I think people think that because more women cook at home, more women should have made it to the top, but that's not how it works. A lot has changed in recent years, there's more of them breaking through, but it takes time.
"I'd love to get my own restaurant, get a book published, get on the TV circuit. But I don't want a Michelin star, it doesn't interest me. [I'd rather] teach people how to be really good home cooks. I'm very traditional and, dare I say it, I believe a woman's place is in the home."
MasterChef in numbers
has won MasterChef since it was relaunched in 2005. Thomasina Miers has since opened two branches of her Mexican street food restaurant Wahaca in London.
11 restaurants in the UK with Michelin stars have female head chefs; that's out of a total of 140 restaurants.
19 years was the age of the 2008 MasterChef finalist Emily Ludolf. Her bacon, scallop, beetroot and chervil concoction reduced judge John Torode to tears.
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