One of Lucky Peach’s recent essays, Between Machismo and Matriarchy, about female entrepreneurs in the Mexican dining scene, reminds me of the complex dynamics of gender and food, as constructed by culture.
The confidence, economic freedom, and culinary ingenuity of Cámara, and of women like her, converged into a muscular fulcrum that elevated the dining scene. In creating a class of restaurants that generated international acclaim and drew the elite upper class to indigenous and regional Mexican food, these women were challenging the male-centric culture at large. They could be spokespeople and icons of the country; they could be powerful entrepreneurs; they could spearhead a culinary movement. Women had always toiled in the kitchen with no status or prestige; these women demanded that the profession be elevated beyond blue-collar work.
For all of the inspirational females, the field still has persistent biases. Last September, Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants feted their annual list in Mexico City. Out of the ten Mexican restaurants that placed among the fifty best, only two of them, Rosetta and Dulce Patria, had a female executive chef. Rosetta’s chef, Elena Reygadas, also won the Veuve Clicquot Latin America’s Best Female Chef category. Cámara quips, “So the 50 Best comes out with the woman-chef category to compensate their macho leanings. Why do they have to make a special category for women? It just highlights how unequal the profession actually is.” At the very top tier of Mexico City fine dining— Pujol, Amaranta, Biko, Kaah Siis—men are in charge. Now that the occupation has become something desirable, men are leaning in. “Make no mistake, the bro-y, dude thing is going on here, too, specifically at the high end,” Cámara says. Ironically, though it was Mexican women who inflated the status of cooking from mundane, domestic work to celebrated art, the arena long defined as “women’s work” is now a space where men attempt to prove their dominance.