Kingdom of the Kitchen: Masculinity and the Celebrity Chef

7 May 2013

Nancy Lee
PhD student and teaching fellow, Nancy Lee, is researching media and celebrity chefs.

When deciding on a topic for her PhD, Nancy Lee was conflicted between building on her honours expertise around masculinity, or following her family-ingrained passion for food. When her supervisor suggested that she do both, the penny dropped on what has developed into a fascinating examination of the male-led industry of celebrity chefs.

Focusing on the Sydney food scene, where men reign supreme, Nancy has conducted extensive interviews that have shed light onto this demanding domain.

"It's really hard to get to the top if you're a woman. It's hard for anyone really. It takes years and years of experience before you gain the authority for people to rally around you," she says. "I've done interviews with chefs who have said women get to this age where they want to get married and have kids and so it's not really conducive to a career as a chef. You really have to make a choice. And that's just sort of the line I've been given, but it's something that I can't really let go of."

Despite the emergence of hospitality programs targeted at women to give them the skills to keep going and "advance the chef ladder", the female chefs Nancy has interviewed seem dubious. "I have been told that it seems patronising; you need this special help because you're a woman, because it's a man's world," she explains.

Similarly patronising can be the way the media reiterates gender differences in the kitchen. "There's a review that (Sydney Morning Herald food critic) Terry Durack did of the all-female kitchen at Bistrode and he said, 'It looks like the Bistrode team has the strategy right: send the bloke off to earn a crust in the city, allowing the girls to stay at home and look after the family (business). They divide and conquer; we all win' and I think that really effects how women are seen in the industry."

But it is another form of media that Nancy is finding the most crucial to her research, and that is social media. In addition to utilising Twitter as a platform for sourcing interviews, she also uses it to observe the ways that chefs are interacting online. "The cult of celebrity chefs is very participatory. They are inviting you to tweet at them, and follow them on Instagram," she says. "I sit on Twitter a lot and observe what's going on. Chefs tweet at each other, they tweet Instagram photos of new menu items. It's all happening on Twitter!"

In between researching traditional and online media around the Sydney food scene, and interviewing the likes of Hamish Ingham of Bar H, Jowett Yu from Mr Wong, and Analiese Gregory, of Quay fame, Nancy has her postdoctoral research kept in check by 'work in progress' meetings every fortnight. PhD candidates, Masters researchers, and curious observing honours students come together to present their work. Nancy finds this "experience in practice" and the feedback she receives from academics and colleagues invaluable.

"The staff in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, because it is quite small, make an effort to really make the experience collegial and encouraging," she says. Describing her first Gender Studies subject as being "like an epiphany", she says she appreciates the discipline because, "you're not constrained by any styles of research or any principles of theory. You draw from lots of different disciplines, and that gives you a lot of room to move. It's a really great department to be in."

Read PhD Candidate Nancy Lee's op-ed critiquing the new MasterChef Australia 'Boys versus Girls' series, published in Daily Life.

Follow the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on Facebook here

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208; 0434 561 056

Email: 2a030504572a292a1b162c1a11090f064d40164b236b0f18