All over the world women cook, but men are chefs.
Is this situation explained by dogma? By Darwin? Or is it an aberration that can be changed by talented, determined women who choose cooking as a profession?
More women are doing so.Once only a handful of them could be found at the Culinary Institute of America, this country's foremost training program for chefs. Now enrollment is more than 20 percent female and is rising. By the early 1980s, according to one projection, fully a third of vocational chef-training graduates will be women. Others are going into restaurant kitchens by alternate routes: after being students or assistants in cooking schools or from cottage-industry home catering.
There is no well-marked path for women to follow. Sex discrimination still is rampant in the field and even when a woman is hired, there is no guarantee she will be welcomed by her male colleagues. Madeleine Kamman, an outspoken champion of women cooks, complaints bitterly about the problems she has had in finding places for women graduates of her difficult, highly respected Modern Gourmet program in the Boston suburb of Newton Centre.
As cases in point, consider the careers of two women.
Leslie Revsin and Elizabeth Wheeler are about a decade apart in age. They share a strong desire for artistic achievement through cooking. Both have broken through the sex barrier and become chefs, yet they recount multiple fractures of heart and mind trying to work beyond the mundane, mechanical aspects of daily restaurant routine.
Revsin gained fame as the first women chef at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria and recently opened her own place, Restaurant Leslie, in Greenwich Village.
"At first you learn how to function in a kitchen," she said. "Later you hope to meet one or two persons way beyond your level. So few cooks have both intuition and technique. The men I've worked with know how to put things together, but most professionals are not very good cooks. It's a job. They may even like it. But they don't recognize the intuitive aspect of cooking - the beauty, the glow, the whatever. It should be a complete expression, very personal and very deep."
Obviously, such philosophical ruminations are a long way from cliche concerns about whether or not a woman is strong enough to lift a stock pot. Cooking professionally is hard, physically demanding work, but not so hard, not so demanding that it cannot be performed by a woman.
"The kitchen fries your brain after awhile," Elizabeth Wheeler said one day as she relaxed by preparing a meal in the kitchen of friends here. She, too, has been a chef, at a restaurant in Shepherdstown, W. Va., called the Yellow Brick Bank. Her infatuation with cooking led her to the Culinary Institute, to two restaurants in New England, a natural foods restaurant in Ohio and - most recently - the galley of a yacht in the Caribbean.
"I learned by buying books, reading and experimenting," she said. "There was nobody to look up to, nobody to learn from. What I know, I taught myself."
At 23, Wheeler has run three kitchens and probably could settle into a job with a comfortable income. Instead she has applied to Madeleine Kamman's school and finds herself on the waiting list.
"I want to be good," she said firmly. "I want more education because I need technical knowledge. I want to find people to show me what they know because I don't consider myself an artist."
Getting food out of the kitchen on time twice a day, the "job" of a cook, isn't enough for Revsin, either.
"I'm an elitist without being excessively an elitist," she said. "My idea was always to be a genius, to be a creator. It amounts to a driving force to make new statements."
Her restaurant, opened in February, seats only 28. It is done in muted colors "to help customers pay attention to the food," and a soft blanket of classical music wraps itself around them whenever conversation lags. Among the 14 items on the menu (exclusive of desserts, listed as a single category) are such unusual dishes as a terrine of pork and brains with radish julienne, sea bass stuffed with sardines and leeks, pasta fritters with crepes and cloud ear mushrooms. The only steak entree, an entrecote, is garnished with olives and scallions.
"I tried to do what I could possibly handle without being dead by 34. It's too much, but they are the kinds of things I wanted to put together and it's not a list of 50 items."
Unlike most European cooks, she was not introduced to the kitchen as a teen-ager. Instead, she grew up in a Chicago suburb ("Nobody in the family really cooked. It was not a feeding environment"), studied psychology and social sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, for two years, then married, moved to Minnesota and studied painting at Macalester College. Despite academic honors, "I didn't know what to do with myself."
A meal with friends ("They had been to Europe and came back inspired. It was an artistic creation that made me reevaluate cooking") and a present, Julia Child's "Mastering The Art of French Cooking," lighted her achievement fires. "She (Child) does a tremendous job of leading you on. From the first my aim was to be a good cook. The social aspect did not actually interest me. I could never ever have done it just to make an impression at a Sunday brunch."
A move to New York and the birth of a daughter, Rachel, interrupted what had become "a true mania" only briefly. At 25, Revsin fought her way (with some from her congressman) into the vocational chef training program of New York City Community College. During a year-and-a-half of study she and her husband were divorced. (A "home-oriented" man, he took custody of their daughter "four or five days a week," freeing Revsin to attend day classes.)
At the suggestion of one of her professors, who worked in the personnel department of the Waldorf, she applied to executive chef Arno Schmidt for a job as "kitchen man" and was accepted.
Schmidt, she said, "backed and supported me" as she moved from garde manger (cold dish preparation) to cooking at the range and eventually to the fish and sauce stations.
"They left me alone," Revsin said. "So I could play at creating and throw out what didn't work. I wasn't getting feedback. It was me against myself. But that's still going on."
She left the hotel to become chef of a restaurant on the upper West Side with a limited menu. That was "a positive experience," but, as she recounts it, "fantasy struck. I started thinking 'Big Menu, Big Money, Big Star' and made my life a horror." Her experiences in a succession of jobs following that route convinced her that "American restaurateurs just aren't into quality.
"It begins with an assumption that Americans (their customers) lack an appreciation of beauty. I don't believe that. I don't believe beauty should be reserved for an elite with all the money in the world. Beauty should be available. Period. People can be educated.Our prices are reasonable, but I insist on using only the best ingredients. I believe you can make money using only the best. But when you work for someone it's a constant struggle. Suddenly the Roquefort is gone and you're told to use Danish bleu in its place."
Elizabeth Wheeler's work life has been spent in bucolic settings far from the tensions and pressures of New York City. Yet her frustrations are an echo of Revsin's. "I wanted to serve things made of fresh ingredients," she related. "I searched for them and worked hard. But sometimes I begin to wonder if it's worth it. Food tastes are so arbitrary. It's such a personal thing."
As a teen-ager, inspired by reading among her mother's "tremendous collection" of cookbooks, she began practicing recipes. Her mother, she recalled, was receptive to the experiments although "there was quite a bit of rivalry. She didn't like me messing up the kitchen."
Rejecting college or work because "I had no marketable talents," Wheeler enrolled in the Culinary Institute. There were few women and the pressures, she now feels, were too great for her at 18. She left after the first year to work in a restaurant on Nantucket.
It was here her brain was "fried," as she was molded into a competent kitchen helper during a series of 70-hour work weeks.
Wheeler's sex caused her no problems in this first job. "There was no chauvinism," she said. "The chef was gay. He expected as much from me as from anybody else. He demanded responsibility and performance. I was stimulated. I put a lot of energy into the job. But it was very hard work and most of the time I was exhausted and panic-stricken because I didn't know if I was doing things right or wrong."
When the season ended, she moved on to another job. The restaurant was large, not small. The chef was overly attentive. The European-born owners disliked her presence in the kitchen. She still winces in pain as she recounts a Thanksgiving dinner of the turkey roasted days ahead, cut into portions and stored in a walk-in refrigerator until it was served with instant mashed potatoes and "gravy" made in 10- to 15-gallon lots.
Wheeler was grateful when she was fired.
Next came a year of study at Antioch in Ohio. She learned butchery while living on a farm and made 500 loaves of bread by hand for a local crafts festival. (The next year, she repeated the task but mixed the dough in 50-pound batches at a bakery. Purism has its limits.)
She went to work in a health-food restaurant. It was an amateur operation, the inspiration of a philosophy professor. Wheeler soon began making up menus and ordering supplies. She found herbs and raspberries as well as vegetables at an organic truck garden and unhomogenized milk. But there was a short circuit between intentions and execution. "There was so much confusion," Wheeler said. "The kids who were cooking had no interest in doing things right. No patience. I got real tired of it."
She came to Washington in March 1977 and signed on the new Yellow Brick Bank as a cook, expecting to work with a chef who was coming from Austria. The chef never arrived, so Wheeler once again found herself in charge of a kitchen but without a "mentor" from whom she could learn.
Balancing desires for an ambitious menu against the limitations of antique kitchen equipment and uneven business, she managed to find some local suppliers with quality products. Among the items offerd were her own recipes for tomato-dill, black bean and chilled melon and lime soups. She devised ham and onion crepes bound with a mustard bechamel, a tomato gratin, several salads and half a dozen desserts including a lime cheese pie and a lemon-almond cake.
By fall Wheeler was ready for a change. A round-trip period of travel brought her back to West Virginia to cater and to do parttime work at the Yellow Brick Bank. On a visit to her family in Puerto Rico, she learned of an opening on a charter boat based in the British Virgin Islands, and applied.
The galley was tiny, but she took the job anyway. "I don't like winter," she said.
Her goal - "to be good" - hasn't changed, however. So she will study with Madeleine Kamman or with someone else who can help her over that undefined hurdle that separates the technician from the artist.