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FOOD : A Kitchen of One's Own : Women as Chefs--A Nationwide Phenomenon Focused in California

September 20, 1987| From "Women Chefs: A Collection of Portraits and Recipes From California's Culinary Pioneers," by Jim Burns and Betty Ann Brown; introduction by Madeleine Kamman. To be published in November by Aris Books, Berkeley

IN RESTAURANT REVIEWS, magazine articles and popular food books, you can see the beginnings of a revolution--the rise of women chefs. For the first time in history significant numbers of women are cooking in top restaurants--and getting credit for it. The phenomenon is nationwide, but many talented women chefs work in California, home of California cuisine. Just as a lack of vested traditionalism allowed room for experimentation and the invention of a new way of cooking, so, too, it allowed for gender reshuffling in the kitchen. The story begins, however, in France, where the modern restaurant originated.

The history of the French food business starts with the medieval guilds, the antecedents of our modern labor unions. There were guilds for butchers, for bakers, for pastry chefs. Training for and admission to each profession was rigidly controlled by guild regulations. According to the "Larousse Gastronomique": "In France, a butchers' guild had been established by the 8th Century; a man had to serve three years' apprenticeship and buy, dress, cut and sell meat for a further three years before he could become a master butcher and buy an official diploma; both privileges cost a great deal of money. The guild was directed by a master of master butchers and became extremely powerful, arrogating to themselves not only the monopoly of selling beef, veal, mutton, pork and sucking-pig but also sea and river fish.

"Charles VI revoked some of their privileges, and their power declined for a time, but in the 16th Century, they were raised to the status of tradesmen, and were subject to statutes, among which were ordinances which forbade them to open new stalls without authority, keep open after a certain time, solicit custom or abuse customers, sell cooked meat, or pursue any other trade but that of a butcher. . . . The royal regulations were maintained until the end of absolute monarchy."

One way in which to circumvent the costs of guild admission (and also perhaps to avoid some of the grueling work involved) was to be the son of a master craftsman. "Larousse" tells us, for example, that for bakers, the "apprenticeships lasted five years, followed by four years working for the bakers' guild. At the end of the nine years, the apprentice, unless he was the master baker's son, had to present his chef d'oeuvre and, on paying for a certificate, might at last practice as a master baker."

French women, who were by law prohibited from owning most property, could rarely afford to buy their way into the guilds' training systems. Property laws also forbade, in most circumstances, their inheritance of family businesses. They could never be the master baker's "son." (There were exceptions: Women sometimes took over their fathers' positions in the guilds controlling fine arts production. For example, Sabina van Steinbach continued her father's work on the sculptural facade of the Strasbourg Cathedral.) Social conventions reinforced the legal restrictions: We haven't found any record of a French woman in the food guilds before the 20th Century.

In the mid-18th Century, the traveler to Paris had only a few options for a meal outside a private home or palace. According to Brillat-Savarin, in his "Physiology of Taste," such a traveler would be "forced to have recourse to the fare provided at his inn, which was usually bad. There were one or two hotels boasting a table d'hote . . . which, however, with few exceptions offered none but the barest necessaries, and could only be had at a stated hour.

"He had, it is true, caterers to fall back on; but they only supplied complete meals, and whoever wished to entertain a few friends was obliged to order his requirements in advance; so that the visitor who had not the good fortune to be invited to some wealthy house would leave our great city in total ignorance of the resources and delights of French cookery."

A soup vendor named Boulanger changed all that. In 1765, the sign over his establishment read: "Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego restaurabo vos" ("Come to me all ye whose stomachs suffer and I will restore you"). Boulanger offered his fare throughout the day and into the evening. He allowed his patrons to select from a menu. One dish he served--sheep's feet in white wine sauce--caused quite a stir. At that time, only traiteurs ("caterers") were allowed to serve whole pieces of meat or fowl and ragouts . Since Boulanger, who was not a member of the traiteurs ' guild, was apparently serving a ragout , he must be breaking the law. The traiteurs took him to court. The judges ruled in Boulanger's favor, holding that his sheep's feet creation was not a ragout and, therefore, not illegal for sale to the public. They had ruled in favor of the forerunner of the modern restaurant.

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