William Skidelsky sees men dominate the kitchen
Why is it that most of the devoted amateur chefs I know are men?
Thanks to the likes of Angela Hartnett, Allegra McEvedy and Sally Clarke, restaurant kitchens are no longer seen as impenetrable, all-male bastions. If the profession is still some way from developing a reputation for gender equality, at least women are no longer viewed as insufficiently tough to stick it out in the kitchen. Actually, that's not quite true: Gordon Ramsay's notorious claim that he wouldn't employ women because their menstrual cycles mean they can work only "three weeks out of every month" shows how, in the kitchen no less than elsewhere, unreconstructed sexism can still flourish. Nevertheless, as a new book called Great Women Chefs of Europe (Flammarion, £24.95) demonstrates, professional cooking clearly is becoming more woman-friendly.
So much for restaurants; what about the home? Here, I suspect, an even more dramatic change is taking place. Men, it seems to me, are rapidly displacing women from the domestic kitchen. Most of the truly devoted amateur cooks I know are male. Could that just be my friends? Well, maybe, but other people I've asked have observed something similar.
In many ways it stands to reason. It seems to me that cooking is a natural outlet for a slightly obsessional strain of maleness. To take cooking seriously is to care genuinely about such matters as what temperature sugar needs to be heated to for it to turn to caramel, or whether browning meat before braising results in a better-flavoured stew. Women, one feels, only concerned themselves with such questions in the past because they saw it as their duty. That is no longer the case. Men, on the other hand, have always had the capacity to bring a deep nerdiness to bear on practical matters (think of their fascination with car engines). The transformation of relations between the sexes has merely given them the opportunity to transfer this tendency to the kitchen.
But the issue goes deeper than that. One of the reasons young women today are less interested in cooking is surely that they want to differentiate themselves from earlier generations. For a woman, there is nothing remotely daring or unexpected about cooking, and that is why it isn't very cool. For men, on the other hand, there is something daring and unexpected about assuming control in the kitchen. At university, my college was dominated by men whose main interests were beer and rugby; I embraced cooking out of a desire to be different from them.
For a man, an interest in cooking can be liberating, whereas a woman is likely to view it as a reversion to outmoded ways. Unless, of course, she enters a different kind of kitchen, and becomes a professional chef.