Q&A: Charlotte Druckman on Skirt Steak, Food Network, and Women in the Food Industry


Charlotte Druckman has written for Travel + Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Town and Country, and many other publications about food and chef culture. But in her most recent endeavor — a book titled Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen — Charlotte interviews more than 70 female chefs about what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated industry. We sat down with Charlotte and talked all things Food Network, cookies, and how to survive in the culinary world.

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You write about women in your book, and I want to know how you think shows like Top Chef and other cooking shows portray women?
Top Chef and Iron Chef are better examples of what’s happening. I think most of the other television shows on the Food Network are the real offense to women.

What do you mean by that?
When I interviewed Alex Guarnaschelli, she basically said that when you look at the Food Network, what you’re technically seeing most of the time is women being considered expert home cooks. Men are being considered expert professional restaurant chefs.

Even the settings that they’re in on the shows.
And even the ones who are actual chefs. Look at Alex’s Day Off. There she is in her V-neck like, “I just love making pot de crème.” That’s more of a problem, I think. Every time I said I was doing this book, people would say, “Oh, you must be writing about Julia Child.” And I again don’t want to sound like some kind of, I don’t know, asshole, but I’m sorry, Julia Child wasn’t a chef. She was a professional home cook. And she was brilliant. She was this wonderful writer and got so many people in America to start cooking at home and cook differently, but she’s not a chef. But that’s the template in a really weird way that the women on the Food Network are kind of based on.

What do you think was the best thing you learned while researching this book?
I took a lot of lessons from the chefs’ resilience. They’re not giving up. Many of them said that you have to put on blinders. You have to tunnel-vision your way through. I think that’s true for anything. In any profession. It’s not even about chauvinism. You’re always going to have office politics and nonsense. You just have to remember what you came to do and why you came to do it and get it done. If I had to take a lesson and apply it beyond, it would probably be that. We women in general, we need to get more comfortable talking about money, asking for money. Feeling like we have a strong command of business and running a business and standing up for ourselves within that capacity.

I feel like there’s a kinship of women — and I’m sure it’s true of men, too — but of women in the same field. I find that a lot of women reach out to mentor and foster that relationship.
I don’t think it happens enough in the cooking world.

I think it depends where you are. But it’s so competitive to be a chef and to have a successful restaurant in New York. Period. So just forget gender. The stakes are so high. The rent is so high. Unfortunately, female chefs often feel that, instead of competing against the best chefs, they’re just competing with each other, because there’s only room for so many women, which isn’t how it should be.

Things are changing, but if you look at the hierarchy of what’s even considered a good restaurant or gets the most attention or money or awards, it tends to be the higher-end stuff, and that is so dominated by men. Because the template comes from France, which is completely anti-women.

When you’re looking at funding and who has the most funding, you have to have a lot of money to get all those stars. Women — by virtue of the fact they weren’t allowed into a lot of those restaurants originally and that we don’t have access to the same types of funds — open restaurants that tend to be smaller, that don’t necessarily get to compete.

The women that you interviewed are not the biggest fans of the term “molecular gastronomy.”
The term and what it refers to. Not fans.

Are there any other kinds of new foodie terms that turn people off?
That was really bad. I think there was an overlap between that kind of progressive cooking and then the tasting menus where it’s like 22 bites. The chefs were not fans of that. There seemed to be this idea that there’s something so egotistical about that kind of cooking, because it really does say “Look at me” instead of saying “I want to have a restaurant that brings people together.”

It’s not always as delicious as it is clever, and it does end up shifting the focus away from the people at the table to the food. When it’s a tasting menu, it’s happening freaking 22 times.

It’s like: I’m sorry, were you having a debate about Romney and Obamacare? I’m sorry about that, but can I show you this little morsel I made? It’s a cube, and when you taste it, it disappears in your mouth and all you’ll be left with is the faint memory of fennel. It’s annoying. You don’t feel like a chef really wanted you to feel welcome. It’s more that they wanted you to be blinded by the science.

You have a giant sweet tooth. What’s your favorite dessert in New York?
I honestly can’t say. I love ice cream, but I am a cookie monster. I won’t rest on one cookie. I’m constantly in search of the perfect cookie. One of the great ones I think is underrated is Chelsea Wilkes, who does all the pastry for Van Leeuwen.

As much as I’m an ice cream buff, I find that in New York City it’s the gelato that wins over the ice cream. But what she does for the Van Leeuwen pastry program needs to be described. More attention needs to be paid to her.

In the acknowledgements of my book, I thank the cookies at Jack’s Stir Brew — these Aunt Rosie’s cookies. They’re a better version of Nestle Tollhouse. You wonder how all these places can survive, and then I think of me and I know how they all survive.

You know who I think is also underrated? The pastry chef Michal Shelkowitz at Dovetail. So quietly killing it up there. As much as Momofuku Milk Bar gets so much credit, I still think that what Christina Tosi does at Ko is just so good and smart. To see her be able to execute on all of those levels is amazing to me.