DCSIMG

Food. Science

Here's how Loretta Keller, the chef at dining hotspot Coco500 in San Francisco, makes chocolate cake, one of her trademark desserts: she melts butter and chocolate together, stirs in egg yolks, sugar and flour, and adds beaten egg whites. She bakes and cools the cake, refrigerates it for two hours to give it the texture she likes, and brings it to room temperature before serving with whipped cream.

And here's how Will Goldfarb, the chef at the trendy Room 4 Dessert in Manhattan, makes one of his specialities, as outlined on his website, willpowder.net: "Bring 100ml milk to a boil with sugar," it begins. Infuse roasted cocoa seeds and coffee beans, it adds, going on: "Strain, and pure 100ml infusion with methylcellulose following instructions for hydration. Bring to 80-90C then rapidly chill to 4C. Warm remaining 300ml milk to dissolve gelatin: reserve at 35C. Begin whipping methylcellulose base in mixer, slowly adding gelatin base and making a stable mousse. Freeze in moulds, unmould, and warm to order in the salamander."

Gender differences in professional cooking probably go back to the hunters and gatherers - more precisely, to the day it first occurred to the hunters to award four stars to themselves and none to the gatherers. But rarely have the differences seemed as stark as they do now, when the chefs winning some of the most bedazzled press coverage in memory belong to a breed of culinary artists who are overwhelmingly male.

These chefs are devotees of Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli restaurant a couple of hours from Barcelona on the Costa Brava produces lengthy meals made up of dozens of little chemistry experiments - food that has been wreaked into powders, foams, extrusions and gels designed to deliver head-spinning doses of flavour, texture and aroma. It's a rarefied cuisine, to say the least, calling for kitchens outfitted like laboratories and grocery lists headed by liquid nitrogen.

But it has changed the definition of greatness in restaurant cooking. Today a chef needs the most advanced technology, not just the ripest peaches, to qualify for stardom. Last autumn Gourmet magazine in the US named Alinea, the Chicago restaurant known as the leading exemplar of Adria-inspired cooking in America, the best in the country.

So where are the women? They've long been underrepresented in the upper echelons of restaurant cooking. But the imbalance is even more stark in the realm of laser-incinerated cornflour. Round up all the women entranced by hi-tech cuisine worldwide, and they could easily fit into a Jacuzzi. Some of the most experienced female chefs are persuaded that the new cuisine will never attract many women - it's just too male. "It's not very nourishing emotionally," says Ann Cooper, author of A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen, a history of female chefs in America.

"This is a huge generalisation, but women's cooking has always been based on nurturing. Tall food was a male invention; women weren't doing much of it. Basically, women feed people."

The few women who do work in the new culinary laboratories, however, tell a different story. They insist they don't feel like interlopers or male impersonators. They're simply becoming chefs in an entirely different way from the women who preceded them.

Traditionally, the only way for an ambitious woman to get experience in the world of professional cooking was to plunge into the chaos of a typical testosterone-driven restaurant kitchen. That's if she was lucky enough to get in the door in the first place (California is an exception: female-friendly kitchens have been standard there since Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971). But when it comes to the new cuisine, the old rules don't seem to apply. Take the case of 24-year-old Pamela Yung. She neither braved the heat of a hostile French kitchen, nor undertook any formal training at all. She has a computer science and design degree from the University of Michigan and was working in a Detroit design firm when she saw a notice on eGullet, the foodie website.

Goldfarb was about to open Room 4 Dessert and needed a stagiaire, or trainee, who would work long hours for low pay. "On a whim, I e-mailed him," says Yung. She started work the day before the restaurant opened. "I was completely overwhelmed," she says. "I just did whatever I was told."

But she wasn't intimidated by the machinery, and today she's a believer, perfectly comfortable turning out white beer sorbets, Earl Grey tea panna cottas and apricot flake salt.

"The machines just give you more options. They're not traditional cooking utensils, but they're cooking utensils, and they're going to become the norm."

Her best friend in the food world is Rosio Sanchez, also 24, who studied Cordon Bleu pastry-making in Chicago and worked briefly at the celebrated Park Avenue Caf in Manhattan before being hired by Alex Stupak, the pastry chef at WD-50 on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "I was very nervous," Sanchez says. "So many chemicals - gums, methylcellulose, maltodextrin."

But she credits Stupak and Wylie Dufresne, the founder of WD-50, with running a non-hierarchical kitchen where beginners, including women, can thrive. "It's a great place to get trained," she says. "We've got total access to all the ingredients, and anyone with free time will grab stuff and try things. If you mess up, nobody yells at you, because we're all trying to learn."

Then there's Danielle Soranno, 23, a station chef at Alinea who had a few years of professional cooking behind her when she started at the restaurant a few months ago. Although she is the only woman among 30 resident cooks, she is enthusiastic. "This is the smoothest, cleanest, best-organised kitchen I've ever seen," she says.

What's more, women working in the new mode say they don't feel they are missing out on the elemental satisfactions of traditional cooking. Elena Arzak, the much-praised Spanish chef at her family's century-old Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian, was profoundly influenced by El Bulli and is developing her own take on Adria's innovations. But she insists that a chemistry-based cuisine can be as warm and personal as any other. "The science just helps me cook," she says.

Soranno points out that the cooks at Alinea have to know all the classics - stocks, reductions, cakes - as well as be able to experiment (she makes soup and bakes bread on her days off). And Yung is just happy to be in the business of feeding people. "It's so natural and fundamental," she says. "That's why I wanted to cook. So I'm giving someone foam, instead of a piece of cake. What's the difference?"

The women who work in these new-style kitchens say ideas and open-mindedness are the currency, not vitriol and bravado, and that the heavy lifting is not physical but intellectual. David Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York, finds that women are as intrigued as men when he gives demonstrations of the new ingredients and techniques. "I don't think this mode of cooking is skewed by gender," he says.

Perhaps all the machines and chemicals are contributing to a revolution other than the one about frozen air and warm gelatin. "Restaurant kitchens were organised like military brigades, because that was the only way to turn out such a volume of work and make all the fast decisions that were necessary," says Goldfarb. "Now it's more like the modern military, using technology as opposed to brute strength."

Yung and Sanchez have been struck, however, by how few women are in high-end restaurant kitchens, of whatever sort. "We're always wondering where the girls are," says Yung.

Maybe settling on an official name for the movement would help. The chief contenders - "space age", "hypermodern" or "extreme" cuisine - come straight from boys' comic books. But in America, at least, the movement has a history its partisans never talk about - a history that happens to be packed with women.

For it was the home economists of the late 19th century who first had the idea of transforming the old-fashioned kitchen into a sleek, modern chemistry lab, so that cooking would no longer be seen as traditional women's drudgery but would rise to the status of a science worthy of the finest male mind. So why not acknowledge these roots and call the craze "Celebrity Home Economics"?

If women do start showing up in significant numbers in the new world of techno-cooking, Gabrielle Hamilton, who provides unpretentious but flavoursome food at her restaurant, Prune, in Manhattan's East Village, will be watching with interest.

"Historically, when women move into men's work it loses value," she observes. "Maybe we'll see the pay drop, and the science suddenly getting called 'soft'. I'll say this: if you see me doing foams at Prune, you'll know the whole thing has gone down the tube."

 
 
 

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