21. Jan, 2016

Domestic Goddesses Part 1: The Ladies

"Cookery is a wholly unselfish art. All good cooks, like other great artists, must have an audience to cook for." - Andre Simon.

There is an old saying that “women make good cooks, but men make better chefs.” While this statement is patently untrue, it does tell us something important about the way society views the roles of men and women in the kitchen. Women have traditionally taken on the role of family cook, but they were usually not seen as suitable candidates for the more complex and prestigious job of managing elaborate kitchens in fancy restaurants.

Chefs were also expected to control their staff with an iron fist (and a strong set of lungs) – not exactly traits that are thought of as traditionally “feminine.” Thus the professional kitchen for many years was almost exclusively a man’s world – for example, the Culinary Institute of America didn’t accept women until 1970. Now, 44% of their 3,000 students are women. What a difference a few decades make!

For decades, women have fought for equality in every aspect of their lives. And it is certainly true that this overall trend towards equality has had an impact in the professional kitchen. At the same time, inspirational female chefs and restaurateurs have shown the world what women are really capable of. The “shop window” of the modern celebrity chef is television, and here women celebrity chefs have certainly made their mark. Their personas have changed over time; just compare the homely, businesslike Julia Child of yesteryear with sensual Nigella Lawson and today’s sex kittens like Padma Lakshmi or Giada de Laurentiis who pose for Penthouse on the side! This week I would like to start off by telling you more about the TV pioneers.    

The first women to display their culinary skills on TV were generally either “posh” or upwardly mobile ladies, and had first become accomplished chefs before becoming media celebrities. While some of them were undoubtedly attractive women, the emphasis of their shows was always on cooking. Here are brief resumés of some of the early icons:

Julia Child. Since her first cooking program aired on public television in 1963, she has inspired millions of amateur cooks and many professional chefs with her well-honed skills, easy kitchen spirit, and passion for learning. She revolutionised American cuisine through her French cooking school, award-winning cookbooks, and world-renowned television programs by presenting an approachable version of sophisticated French cooking to her eager audience for four decades. She trained in France, and together with Louisette Bertolle, established a cooking school called L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes and in 1961, published a ground-breaking cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".

Her book and the popular television show that followed made the mysteries of fancy French cuisine approachable, introducing gourmet ingredients, demonstrating culinary techniques, and most importantly, encouraging everyday "home chefs" to practice cooking as art, not to dread it as a chore. She hosted numerous shows, including "Cooking with Master Chefs", "Baking with Julia", "In Julia's Kitchen" and "Cooking in Concert". Without Julia Child American cuisine might have languished in the land of meat-and-potatoes far longer. She passed away on August 12, 2004.

Delia Smith CBE is the undoubted doyenne of British TV chefs, known for teaching basic cooking skills in a no-nonsense style. She is the UK's best-selling cookery author, with more than 21 million copies sold. She left school at 16 with no qualifications and worked as a trainee hairdresser, then a shop assistant and later at a travel agency. At age 21, she spent time washing up in a restaurant, and this experience piqued her interest in cooking. However, she says it was when a boyfriend kept praising his former girlfriend's talents in the kitchen that she got fed up and started cooking seriously.

Delia studied English cookery books at the British Museum to find inspiration for cooking meals for family and friends, with mixed success. One of her first television experiences was as an assistant on a food advertisement. When someone dropped a pie just before filming began, she volunteered to make the replacement. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, Delia has spent more than 40 years showing the British public how to cook. She is one of the leading modern authorities on good basic cooking and is immensely popular and trusted: supermarkets report ‘the Delia Effect’ whenever she recommends a product.

Prue Leith CBE  was born in South Africa, with her working life spent mostly in London. After matriculating she moved to the UK where she started a business supplying high quality business lunches in 1960. This grew to become Leith's Good Food, the famous party and event caterer. In 1969, she opened Leith's, her famous Michelin-starred restaurant. In 1975 she founded Leith’s School of Food and Wine which trains professional chefs and amateur cooks.

She has been a food columnist for the Daily Mail, Sunday Express, The Guardian and The Mirror. Aside from cookery books, including "Leith's Cookery Bible", she has also written six novels. Her Memoir, "Relish", was published in 2012.

Prue has held various public service appointments: Chair of the Restaurateurs Association; member of the Investors In People working group and part of the Consumer Debt Working Group. She was Chair of the School Food Trust, the British government's campaign to replace foods high in salt, sugar and fat with freshly cooked, healthy food, a job she described as the most important of her long career. She was also a popular judge on the BBC Television programme "Great British Menu" since the series' inception in 2006. After divesting from most of her business interests in 1995, she established a restaurant and cookery school in Centurion, and spends the majority of her time in South Africa.

Madhur Jaffrey CBE is an Indian-born actress, food and travel writer, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing Indian food to the Western world with her debut cookbook, "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" (1973). She has written over a dozen cookbooks and appeared on several related television programs, the most notable of which was “Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery”, which premiered in the UK in 1982. She is the food consultant at Dawat, considered by many restaurant critics be among the best Indian restaurants in New York City.

She played an instrumental part in bringing together film makers James Ivory and Ismael Merchant, and acted in several of their films such as "Shakespeare Wallah" (1965), for which she won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International film Festival. She has appeared in dramas on radio, stage and television. Her childhood memoir of India during the final years of the British Raj, Climbing the Mango Trees, was published in 2006.

Mary Berry CBE is an English food writer and television presenter. After excelling in Home Economics at school, she studied catering and institutional management at college. She then moved to France at the age of 21 to study at prestigious Ecole Le Cordon Bleu, before working in a number of cooking-related jobs.

She has published more than 75 cookery books (her first being The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook in 1970) and hosted several television series for the BBC and Thames Television. Berry is an occasional contributor to "Woman's Hour" and "Saturday Kitchen". She has been a judge on the "The Great British Bake Off" since its launch in 2010.

"There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than a beautiful woman in the act of cooking a meal for someone she loves." - Thomas Wolfe.