I recently finished watching the Netflix TV series Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s food show on global comfort food and the ways in which it travels around the globe.
One of the episodes I’ve been reflecting on the most is the home cooking episode. Chang (head of the Momofuku food empire) sees himself as part of the long line of celebrity ‘bad boy chefs’ who buck tradition and do it their way. And for a person who sees himself as such a maverick, as someone so eager to challenge all the ways things have ‘traditionally’ been done, Chang leaves the traditionally gendered roles of cooking at home completely unchallenged.
Chang begins the episode by saying that he rarely cooks at home; he doesn’t have the time while running his food empire. Instead, the episode revolves around the home cooking that his mother does. His often co-conspirator in the show, Rene Redzepi of the famed Danish restaurant Noma, states that he too doesn’t have the time to cook at home and the other site the episode revolves around is his home, where Rene has a partner who does all the cooking (who’s also a recognized chef in her own right).
During the episode, the men rue their busyness, discuss how they want to get back to more ‘home cooking’ (just not at home for their families of course, but in their restaurants…), and explain their absence from home and lack of home cooking as ‘providing for their family’.
For all I know, they and their respective partners had robust discussions about their family roles and their partners are 100% content with this choice to not have them at home. It’s a legitimate choice among the spectrum of family choices. But, traditionally, women have been confined to staying at home in the kitchen, taking care of their families while the men do the ‘real’ work of financially providing, which might include getting accolades as ‘real chefs’ in professional kitchens. For Chang to only present this view of home cooking is lazy, full of unchallenged gender norms, and a glaring blind spot in his already bro-heavy show.
The best line in the show is from Rene’s partner Nadine who, in response to everyone always commenting to her how they must eat so well at home because her husband is a chef, answers, “I mean, we do eat well at home. But because I cook… He’s never here when it’s dinner time.”
All of this to say, this is one of the reasons that I’m appreciating this moment of my life where I can be at home, cooking for and with my family. That’s real, necessary, and valuable work that men haven’t always traditionally valued. It’s also why I’m not that interested in professionalizing this aspect of my life by starting a restaurant (among other reasons). As I’ve always told people, cooking at home is entirely different than cooking in a professional kitchen: different skill sets, different tasks, different work/life balance, different hours… And as Chang and most professional chefs admit, they rarely have time to cook at home. Your relationship to food and cooking changes when you professionalize it in that way. And I kinda like the way it is now.
It’s messy. Kids run in frequently to ‘help’ (which is good for them!). Often the cooking is paused to grab a snack for someone or corral a baby who’s getting into trouble. It’s creative. I don’t have a menu or bottom line to dictate what and how I have to cook. I get to teach my kids to love food and cooking and trying new things. I get to show them other possible choices in how family roles are created. And in this period where I am bereft of the typical ways in which my labor is valued (through financially reimbursed employment…), I can find purpose and value in being with and feeding my family.
(Lead picture: Grilled shish taouk chicken with a green almond fattoush.)