Stephen Jardine: Catering for the sexual divide

WHAT do two starters mean to you? If the answer is dinner, I can instantly tell something about you. You’re a woman.

The growth in the “starters for mains” phenomenon has been matched by the spread of small plates to cater for health-conscious women eating out.

Any restaurant that targets female customers needs to be aware that the two sexes eat differently. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the dinner table is where the divide is most obvious.

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A generation ago it just came down to portion sizes on the plate but now entire menus are written around attracting female customers.

In Edinburgh, Urban Angel has the female market sorted. With nearly a dozen little plates available for under a fiver and all the main courses in big and small sizes, a little thought has been rewarded with a lot of female custom.

The contrast between how men and women eat was most obvious to me at Mark Hix’s new restaurant in London. Tramshed serves only steak and chicken – only very good steak and chicken.

Sitting at the bar, last weekend I watched plate after plate of marbled sirloin steak leave the kitchen and head straight over to tables of men.

Only when a couple of tables of women arrived did orders for the free-range chickens finally start to roll.

Even at dessert, the sexes remained separate with most men choosing apple pie and most women sharing the chocolate and strawberry fondue.

But how much of this is down to what we want and how much to what we’re conditioned to want?

Physically, men have different requirements from their diet, including a higher calorie intake. The UK government recommends men need 2550 calories a day for a healthy life, with women requiring 1940 calories.

In his 1982 best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, Bruce Feirstein summed up what he saw as the fundamental difference. “Think about it, could John Wayne ever have taken Normandy, Iwo Jima, Korea and the entire Wild West on a diet of quiche and salad?” he asked.

But surely changes in work and society must be taking us to the point where the old split between hunters and gatherers is lost in time, clichés become irrelevant and our diets start to converge?

This week I had lunch with the editor of a food magazine and put this to the test. She ordered steak, I ordered fish and salad and felt very modern.

However, nature took it’s course. With only half the steak eaten, she admitted defeat and I leaned across the table and finished it off.

I wish I could blame that on my gender conditioning but the truth of the matter is, I was still hungry and the steak came with chips. As an experiment, it was a bit of a failure but a very tasty one at that.