Women in the Kitchen: The unequal treatment of professional chefs in anime and beyond

By: Coin Easterly November 29, 20190 Comments
The two leads from Food Wars: a confident-looking young man and a shy young woman

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of workplace harassment; NSFW screenshots.

Cooking is a popular subgenre in manga, with titles ranging across a variety of demographics and age groups, from action to romance to slice-of-life. These titles focus on male or female protagonists cooking and having adventures along the way.

Yet despite the broad range of titles, when looking at Japanese media about cooking at large, I’ve noticed a frustrating gender imbalance between stories about professional male and female chefs. Stories about male chefs (most often in shounen manga) tend to center around their skill and on their prowess in the kitchen; while the professional lives of female chefs are downplayed in favor of focusing on a romantic storyline.

Promo image for Kitchen Princess
Kitchen Princess (2004)

Kitchen Princess (a shoujo) and Ristorante Paradiso (a seinen) both feature a female protagonist who wishes to be a chef, but the main focus is on the relationships they form through cooking. The plots focus on romance and friendship rather than the knife skills and the taste profiles of the dishes. On the flip side, series like Chuuka Ichiban and the popular Food Wars! star male protagonists who use their creativity and skill to compete and win against rival chefs in dramatic cooking showdowns. 

In Chuuka Ichiban, Mao’s mother Pai was the rare female chef lauded for her culinary skills who had a successful career as a chef and restaurant owner. Most of the time, though, female chefs in cooking manga are mentioned but never given the same focus as the ambitions of male chefs. Food Wars demonstrates this perfectly, as women do not feature much in the main action but live on the sidelines, often there to provide sensual reactions to the food and function as possible love interests for the protagonist.

A girl in bondage gear splayed in a suggestive pose thinks "I'm becoming prisoner to this smell..."
Food Wars! (2015)

There are exceptions, of course, such as the long-running Cooking Papa, about a husband who cooks for the family while the wife does not know how, subverting gender roles in the home. Recent series like Sweetness and Lightning, where a single dad learns how to make tasty meals for his young daughter, have also tried to take a more gender-balanced approach. 

But stories like these are few and far between, and action-driven cooking series starring female characters are all but nonexistent. There’s a clear divide in fiction between the expectations surrounding male and female cooks.

The two leads of Ristorante Paradiso sharing a meal
Ristorante Paradiso (2009)

Trapped in the Home

This gendered trend in cooking manga links to broader cultural and social norms, both in Japan and abroad. There have been numerous studies studies on how men are regarded as experts and women, no matter how many years of training and practice, are considered to be amateurs or beginners. 

If we put this lens on cooking fiction, we can see that cooking has a clear and firm dichotomy. Chuuka Ichiban was made in the late ‘90s and Food Wars was a manga that just ended this year, but both feature hypercompetent boy chefs who use their skills to rise to the top. Meanwhile, women chef protagonists mainly concern themselves with relationships (both romance and friendship) and emotional bonds. We do not see their training and learning in the culinary world as the highlight of their story. 

The main girl in Kitchen Princess blushes slightly as a boy holds her hand and takes a bite off a fork she's holding. The image is full of sparkles and clearly intended to be romantic.
Kitchen Princess

This mirrors what has been happening in the real world for centuries. Women have historically been expected to stay safely at home, protected by their family and unable to participate in public life or improve their stations. Women have ventured outside of the home for a long time, but the threat of male violence and sexual assault, along with more subtle forms of misogyny, have discouraged, derailed, impeded, and in some cases utterly destroyed women’s advancement in society.

Chuuka Ichiban even calls this out, although maybe not intentionally. Mao is a 13-year-old boy traveling through the provinces of China to discover new cooking methods and challenge himself; meanwhile, Mei Li, the 16-year-old daughter of his mentor, cannot join him because of the dangers it’s assumed she’d face just by being a girl. The series demonstrates this danger in the first episode via a flashback, when Pai’s apprentice Shou Fan physically attacked her because he couldn’t meet her standards of cooking.

the lead of Chuuka Ichiban carrying several unplucked chickens to prepare
Chuuka Ichiban (1997)

This incident emphasizes women’s vulnerability to men’s violence in a professional kitchen, even when she’s his superior. In a study, women said they had to learn how to be more assertive to take on leadership positions in the cooking industry. In his book Kitchen Confidential, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain asserted that most women were not cut out for a job in a kitchen’s restaurant, relaying a story about a woman who had to physically retaliate against a male coworker who was sexually harassing her.

In Bourdain’s opinion, women needed to protect themselves from unwanted advances if they ever wanted to fit into a professional kitchen. In later articles, he would regret his statements and adopt a more feminist stance on women chefs.

Kitchen Confidential (2000)

While Bourdain grew and learned over the years, sadly it seems that the professional cooking industry as a whole has not. Recently, Hestor Blumenthal stated that evolution was the reason there are fewer women at the top of the cooking industry. He said he has always hired female chefs but the biological clock wins out and, after pregnancy, women are unable to carry heavy pots and pans. These comments are of course biological essentialist nonsense; mothers around the world carry heavy loads and some even become gold-medal record holders.

A few months later, another male chef put his foot into his mouth and said that women are too emotional to be chefs and that men are better at handling the pressure in kitchens. This type of thinking by high-profile male chefs in the industry showcases that there is still work to be done in changing misogynistic attitudes in the professional cooking and food industry.

A surprised teen girl wearing a chef uniform holds a knife and blushes slightly
Food Wars!

The Uphill Climb for Women in the Workplace

Patriarchal societies are designed to reward men and engineer women to be mothers and wives first. This is true across many different cultures and ideologies, including Japan and the U.S. 

In Japan, a neo-Confucianist monk named Kaibara Ekken had a piece of work called Onna Daigaku that was meant for Japanese women to live by, which expanded on the Confucian Three Obediences and Four Virtues.

The text outlined the proper etiquette and behavior of a virtuous and ideal Japanese woman as a daughter, wife, and mother who must loyally serve her father, husband, and son throughout her life. It enforces women’s role in society as subservient to her male family members, even to her own son. This same type of thinking led to the Japanese slogan of “Good Wife, Wise Mother” in the 19th century.

Onna Daigaku (Image source)

Japan has an aging and declining population that makes the government worried about the economy and its future. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, wants more women to join the workforce and has set up policies to promote working mothers, but cultural and social backlash against women and mothers is still strong in private and public institutions. 

Japanese work culture is severe and taking leave can mean a dismissal or a missed chance at promotion. Only six percent of Japanese men take paternity leave because of these consequences. Women are expected to leave once they start a family, so job security is fraught when you’re a working mother. Male bosses doubt women’s commitment to their career, thinking they will retire once they have a family or their performance will suffer because of their families.

Abenomics does not penalize businesses and institutions that enact these practices. The government has promised that all children will be put in daycare, but there are still thousands that have no facilities they can use. As long as cultural and social beliefs and practices do not change, the situation for Japanese women and families won’t, either. 

Julia Child in a cozy home kitchen, wearing an apron and holding a rolling pin
Julia Child (Image source)

The Domestic Double-Standard

Even in the modern-day world of professional cooking, real-life women struggle to be seen in the same way as their male counterparts. The “genius chef stereotype” seen in manga mostly applies to male characters, like the “rock star chef” for which Anthony Bourdain served as the prototype. Meanwhile, famous women chefs or culinary icons are promoted as bastions of domesticity and motherhood. 

Julia Child and Rachel Ray existed in the popular imagination with their sweet, placid smiles and demeanour.  Their target demographic is the woman in the house tasked with making delicious food and taken for granted. 

While they were undeniably skilled and influential figures—in America, French cooking became popular largely because of Julia Child’s TV show The French Chef and her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking—their selling point and image hinges on the housewife and homemaker role, ignoring the fact that they’re also spokespeople, businesswomen, and highly trained chefs in their own right.

The same is true in Japan, where female “homemakers” like Harumi Kurihara are styled as motherly and caring in the celebrity food industry. Japanese celebrity chefs like those that star on the popular cooking show Iron Chef are notable in that almost all of the contestants are male.

Cover art for the book "Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking"
Harumi’s Japanese Home Cooking (2007)

For the most part, in our cultural psyche as a whole, women are “cooks” and men are “chefs.” Women are given the duty to feed the family in the house, while men are seen as artists and visionaries in the workplace. The male chef’s culinary genius is a professional experience to be savored, while the housewife and mother cooks to the satisfaction of the home. This carries over to the manga and anime world, where male chefs are revered as self-made visionary creators while women are relegated to cooking as a dutiful act to nourish others.

These sexist expectations are frustrating enough when they’re about stereotypically “masculine” jobs involving physical labor, but they’re doubly infuriating for cooking, an activity women are expected to learn from a young age. Women and girls are socialized to be good cooks and considered “failures” if they don’t, but it’s still tougher for women to succeed and flourish as professional chefs.

promo image of the two leads from Ristorante Paradiso tasting wine and chocolate
Ristorante Paradiso

The housewife and mother who cooks is meant to be rewarded by the smiles and full stomachs of her family. Women who cook for payment, though, like in all other industries, are not promoted as equal to their male counterparts. And as such we see the dichotomy of cooking: a feminine activity in the domestic sphere, but a masculine profession in the public sphere.

Women should not have to be expected to be great cooks in the home while also having more obstacles to becoming chefs in the cooking industry. They should also have the opportunity to be lauded as culinary icons in their own right and be appreciated for their ideas, not only be celebrated as homey housewives and homemakers. Manga, anime, and other fiction about professional chefs needs to do the same thing, giving just as much weight to the talent of their female cooks as they do their male ones.  And in doing so help influence reality to be more equal in real life kitchens.

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