Julia Child’s kitchen is full of light. Child, the preeminent culinary coach and famous chef of the 20th century, is credited with introducing the American public to international fine dining. On her PBS TV show “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs,” the charismatic chef wears colorful silk blouses, decorates her countertop with fresh flowers, and delights guests with her charismatic demeanor.
Child passed away in 2004, but clicking through the cooking channels shows that her legacy of elegant food and bright, delicious presentation lives on. On the Food Network, Italian-American chef Giada De Laurentiis sprinkles salt over pesto crostini in her clean white kitchen. Meanwhile, on The Cooking Channel’s “Real Girl’s Kitchen,” actress Haylie Duff radiates an abundance of mini muffins for Christmas brunch.
The world of celebrity chefs featured via US channel guides is narrowly defined. On the Food Network, producers create the perfect atmosphere for celebrity chefs. Women never sweat while spraying olive oil or carrying big salads to their perfectly manicured gardens. Channels are aimed at selling products, so, of course, TV kitchens are ambitiously basking in the sun. Our favorite chefs wear clean aprons when using their sponsor KitchenAid mixers and never lose a megawatt smile. The intent of these performances is to sell the celestial world to American women.
However, something else lies beneath the idyllic imagination of Hamptons cuisine that the Food Network is trying to sell to its viewers. Crispy tablecloths and summer cocktails hide a darker culture behind the scenes. Behind the quintessential facade of the cooking shows of famous women lies a culture of oppression and lies, with every shot orchestrated to hide rampant sexual harassment behind the camera.
In order to explore how food television enables off-screen abuse, we must begin by examining how networks position male and female chefs. The Food Network’s current schedule hosts a variety of cooking shows filmed in commercial kitchens, home kitchens, restaurants and outdoor setting. The location of the cooking shows is essential in creating a gender disparity, with female chefs confined to the home and men working in the outside world.
Almost every current cooking show hosted by a chef, including “The Pioneer Woman,” “Barefoot Contessa,” “Delicious Miss Brown,” “Valerie’s Home Cooking,” and “Tricha’s Southern Kitchen,” is housed within a warmly lit room and meticulously decorated home kitchen. In contrast, shows hosted by male chefs are often held in a polar opposite environment, one full of competition, edge and aggression. At their simplest, shows hosted by men simply focus on competition, such as “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “The Great Food Truck Race.” At their most extreme, male chefs orally deal with rivals, such as Gordon Ramsay’s famous swearword-filled scenes in “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares.”
Shows like “Beat Bobby Flay” are designed like a gladiator episode, complete with a live audience and dimly lit stadium-style. Although women have competed in Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” (a contest series in which vandalism and “trash talk” are heavily encouraged), the host and three of the four judges are men. With a few exceptions, any male-hosted shows that take place in a home environment are set up in a backyard grill (take the “Boy Meets Grill” and “BBQ With Bobby Flay”) and feature large plates of meat and giant bonfires instead of fancy plates and small grids of her female counterparts.
The almost comical difference between watching Rachel Ray delicacy of pasta and Robert Irvine yelling at small business owners has dire consequences for the food media industry. By enforcing perfection and passivity from their hosts and encouraging aggressive behavior from their male hosts, food channels eliminated accountability and allowed abuse.
In 2015, the media revealed Bobby Flay’s alleged three-year affair with his personal assistant, Elise Terrell. At the time, Flay was at the height of his power and popularity, while Tirrell was financially dependent on Flay and 22 years younger. Rather than being labeled the perpetrator of an extremely inappropriate affair, Fly was protected by a cult of his strong personality while Tyrell was publicly called by Fly’s wife’s friend, “Monica Lewinsky of the Food World.”
Mario Batali, a chef who owned an empire ranging from 16 restaurants to roles in “Iron Chef America” and “Spain… on the Road Again” and “The Chew,” has been formally accused of sexual misconduct by four chefs and other staff members. Although Batali was acquitted of the assault and battery charges in 2017, he stated that the allegations against him “matched” to his previous behavior. Even as he pleaded guilty, Batali still parodied the charges by including the recipe for cinnamon rolls and pizza dough in the footer to his official apology email.
It would be ridiculous to draw a direct causal relationship between hosting hyper-masculine cooking shows and perpetrating sexual harassment, especially when the majority of male hosts have no charges against them. However, with Johnny Ezini of The Great American Baking Show accused of sexual misconduct and John Beech of Top Chef and Iron Chef America accused of gender discrimination and harassment, it is clear that the networks foster a culture of complacency.
Fly, Batali, Ezini and Bish are not outliers in a professional and high performance work environment. They are predators empowered by a monolithic television network culture that allows personal cults to protect their chefs from direct consequences.
While Bobby Flay was allegedly fraternizing with Elyse Tirrell, the song Good Eats Host Alton Brown was endorsing PBS’s cooking show “The Frugal Gourmet,” whose host, Jeff Smith, paid an undisclosed sum to victims of sexual assault. Brown simply stated, “I don’t care what he does or does in his personal life.” While Mario Batali has come under fire for allegations of harassment, Food Network presenter Sunny Anderson, herself a victim of workplace harassment, took to Twitter to hurt Harvey Weinstein survivors, saying: “An opportunity to make another victim.”
In a world that promotes highly sexualized shows, whose hosts themselves have offered themselves public amnesty for sexual harassment and assault, fraudsters have managed to get away with unwarranted crimes. The networks cemented Fly and Batali’s reputation for being ruthless, masculine and controlling. This attitude played a part in why these chefs felt able to expose a personal assistant to public shame and attached a recipe to an official letter of apology for the harassment.
To end the rampant sexual misconduct in food television, internal action must be taken to break down the stark gender disparity and sexist lines that currently define food television. By ending the cult of bold and aggressive personality that networks use to protect their male hosts from scrutiny, justice can be served. Outside organizations like #MeToo cannot succeed in eradicating harassment and assault without networks completely revamping their misogynistic models to prioritize safety and empowerment over profit.
Avery Crystal is an opinion writer and can be reached at [email protected].