In defence of Tom Kerridge, for better or worse, as a man

In defence of Tom Kerridge, for better or worse, as a man

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True sexism is an abomination. It is the mark of a society retarded by useless patriarchal themes which it should have long since outgrown. The empowerment of women is on equal footing with climate change debate, as far as I’m concerned, and I refuse to get with ‘Clarksonesque’ dismissals of the progress Western society has made in this area. I’m not, however, one to spring to a judgement on someone after seeing one article in one publication. I try not to let the press manipulate me in that way.

— Tom Kerridge (@ChefTomKerridge) August 21, 2014

Many foodies remember the first time Mr Kerridge popped up on the National radar as the larger than life competitor on the Great British Menu. He was a refreshing break from the dour, and frankly terrifying, likes of Marcus Waering and Jason Atherton, but didn’t appear to have to compromise in quality in order to be so. The judges agreed, resulting in him winning the main course, two years running: an achievement no chef has repeated since. Another endearing feature of his appearance was the enthusiastic support he had for fellow contender Lisa Allen. It seemed to stem from a genuine respect for her culinary talent, but also as a reaction to the lack of gender diversity in the competition.

Kitchen Confidential...

In the 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain portrayed an industry which no sane woman would want to enter; a frat-house without the education; out-machoing colleagues was as important as the cooking. Even the author admits that this was always a bit of a caricature, but the resonance it had with chefs worldwide was telling. While things have moved forward, and female chefs are ever more successful, the restaurant business remains fundamentally more masculine than equal. There are people who think this is a good thing. Others, me included, don’t. If you want to deny the state of the situation, however, you are deceiving yourself.

I’m fortunate enough to have eaten at The Hand and Flowers several times, and the atmosphere in there is anything but macho. The head of front of house is a woman, and not a token one; she is polite, efficient and professional- perfectly qualified. The likelihood is that you will be served by a female waiter, but not so much so that you feel some positive discrimination has been enforced. The food itself could crudely be described as ‘manly’ but everyone now must know that a lady ordering steak and chips is a taboo long since dispensed with- even in the snobbiest of establishments. And, in the article in question, Tom tells us that he employs plenty of female workers in his kitchen. Compared to most of his peers, his record on the gender equality front is well above average- bordering on exemplary- so why is he now being labelled ‘sexist’?

Addicted to Schadenfreude

As is the modern way, it comes down to words. We used to judge people by their actions, but now things have changed; these days you can lose your job because someone mishears you. The media isn’t going to catch one of the country’s most beloved chefs actually doing anything sexist, because he probably isn’t going to do anything sexist, so it takes a little more stealth in order to kick start the Schadenfreude we Brits are so hopelessly addicted to. I personally think that Tom tried to describe a huge issue in the jovial, working class, boy-done-good way he describes everything else in. The reader then sees it in cold, hard text, and the man is condemned.

I can’t speak for the guy; maybe his clumsy answers are a sign of a bigoted wolf in (perfectly seasoned) lamb’s clothing, but let me try and articulate what he may have actually meant- and probably should have said:

The restaurant industry, particularly the high-end, is disproportionately masculine. This probably results from old-fashioned patriarchal structures that reward things like aggression, which helps create a laddish atmosphere which I have problems with. To generalise slightly, the kitchen workers I have come across tend to be young males, with interests such as football, boobs, and being the alpha in the tribe. Women have less testosterone than men, so it makes sense that they may not find it terribly easy to scale upwards in a system totally riddled with the stuff. In my kitchen, however, I prefer the balance that comes with having both male and female staff. I don’t like the ultra-masculinity that has defined many a Michelin starred restaurant, and will continue to do my best to help my female employees thrive in this business.

The fact remains, though, that the industry is what it is. The faults are still there, and this is why I think female chefs are not as common as male ones currently. It has nothing to do with a lack of talent, or drive; it’s due to an institutionalised understanding that aggression and arrogance are assets in this business; things that less testosterone helps to avoid. Obviously there are exceptions on either side, and I’m not the authority on this issue, but you’ve asked my opinion and this is the best I’ve got.

Women lacking “fire in the belly”

Now, even in this rather more measured statement, some hardcore feminists will hate the fact that I pointed out any difference between men and women; for them, that is on a par with questioning brain size between races. However, I follow science more than ideology. If these kinds of facts are ignored, it can end in tears: witness the transgendered MMA fighter who was let into the ring with a non-transgendered fighter, or maybe don’t-if you don’t want to cringe. It doesn’t mean that these facts should result in prejudicial treatment in the work place; quite the opposite; I am criticising an industry which has failed to equalise things, failed to throw out unnecessary behaviour, failed to adjust. If anything, Kerridge is trashing men (it’s allowed; he is one) for being so hard-headed and stubborn and, even worse, running the show.

His description of women lacking “fire in the belly” would be horribly offensive if he only employed male chefs. Since he doesn’t, I have to read that as being symbolic of words like ‘cocky’ ‘brutal’ and ‘obsessive’.

When he says a conversation in a kitchen can be all “boobs and football”, he isn’t saying he likes running things like a madhouse; he’s describing what his male staff members can be like in an all-male work environment.

The fact he likes women workers because they “bring that testosterone level down a little bit” does sound incredibly patronising. But it was an offhand, off the cuff comment about how he likes having women in the workplace, instead of purely men, because it creates a better balanced working environment. What should he be doing? Returning to segregation? I know I’m reading between lines and putting words in mouths, but that’s all his detractors are doing as well. This debate can only operate under broad strokes and conjecture- it just depends on how much evidence you need before you denounce someone. The Son of Man and I had a falling out long ago, but I will urge you to reflect on one of his teachings: examine your own words throughout your life, and only then ‘cast the first scone’.

So, while I wish the man had said less on this subject, or took a longer pause before phrasing it, I cannot deem him a hideous misogynist. Maybe he’ll turn out to be one- I quite like surprises- but where there is not much smoke there’s usually very little fire. I await the public apology of course, that most phony and demeaning of procedures, but I want it to be known that I didn’t immediately turn against you, Tom. I’m not going to be boycotting your slow-cooked duck breast with duck fat chips any time soon. Mind you, I’m not sure even a substantial selection of war crimes could make me do that.

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