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

First published at The F-Word Blog

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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?

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