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Now reading Between Machismo and Matriarchy

Between Machismo and Matriarchy

How Mexican women brought cooking from domestic work to celebrated art.

As the second shift of cooks file into the kitchen, each greets the chef before making the rounds to other staff members, kissing cheeks, giving warm salutations. The decorum is unexpected, but so is the overall kitchen dynamic. There is a senior sauté cook with short, choppy hair jostling on the hot line; a couple of cooks with dark swooshes of eyeliner, focused and bent over cutting boards; and a pair in tiny, trim chef coats shelling fava beans. This is the first majority-female kitchen that I have been in—and it’s in Mexico.

For a country that is often portrayed brimming with Latino machismo and male swagger, there’s a decidedly feminine current among the culinary cognoscenti. Top chefs include Margarita Carrillo Arronte, Elena Reygadas, Patricia Quintana, Yerika Muñoz, Alicia Gironella De’Angeli, Mónica Patiño, Gabriela Cámara, Marta Zepeda, Martha Ortiz Chapa, Josefina Santacruz, and Zarela Martinez. While Enrique Olvera may command the most press, with restaurants in both Mexico City and New York, the Mexican kitchen is woman’s domain.

It has been so for centuries. Mexican girls were taught how to cook from an early age by their female relatives, learning how to feed large families, and passing recipes down through generations. A woman who couldn’t make tortillas, even one who would eventually be hiring someone else to do it for her, was considered unfit for marriage. “Women were always, always cooking,” says Arronte, chef, television host, and author of the impressive and hefty Mexico: The Cookbook. “It’s in our blood, it’s our history.”

But one can say the same about almost every culture that has ever developed a cuisine; women were always the original cooks, everywhere. The evolution of Mexico’s dining scene is the key difference. In Europe, it was men who assumed the title of chef once cooking became cuisine, a distinction that cordoned women to the domestic realm of the home kitchen. The fine dining of the court kitchens that fed the aristocracy evolved into the male-centric brigade kitchens that continue today.

But in Mexico, even by the mid-twentieth century, dining out was not common practice. In the country’s capital, professionals would go home every afternoon to eat lunch, then return to work in the evening. Historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, uncovers that, with the growth of commuter traffic and urban sprawl, such a practice became more and more impractical. Workers needed to eat near their offices. The restaurant scene grew, but remained fairly limited to a couple of touristy places serving continental fare; small, inexpensive fondas offering comida corrida (an affordable daily set menu); and tamales, tortas, and tacos de canasta (basket tacos) hawked by street vendors. The wealthy dined in social clubs or in each other’s houses, where cooks looked toward Europe for inspiration, dousing everything in demi-glace and plating huitlacoche in cream-covered crepes on fine china. Managing the kitchens? Women, of course, called mayoras, literally “majors” or “chiefs.”

Cámara, the owner of the rabidly popular, seafood-centric Contramar, explains the trajectory. “Being a chef or a cook in Mexico until very recently was not an upscale thing, with hopes of fame or a great career, so men didn’t stick their noses into it.” The Mexican dining scene really accelerated just thirty years ago, she explains, driven by changes in Mexican foreign policy as well as globalization and the way the media and communication has changed throughout the world.

A collective of confident female entrepreneurs like Quintana, Diana Kennedy, Patiño, and their cohort (there were token men, too) started the first wave of restaurants to offer upscale, urbane presentations of Mexican cuisine. The 1990s were a good decade for the Mexican dining scene: Patiño opened La Galvia and moved her popular La Taberna del León from the Valle de Bravo to Mexico City; Gironella opened El Tajín; and, in 2001, Quintana opened her landmark, Izote, which closed only recently. In addition to these alta cocina restaurants, these women founded committees, became appointed as culinary ambassadors by governmental offices, cooked for visiting dignitaries, wrote cookbooks, and organized culinary conventions; they advocated for a new image of authentic Mexican food as sophisticated and playful, without losing its strong attachments to Aztec and Mayan culture. This collective is what historian Rachel Laudan calls the “Mexico City culinary establishment,” an upper-class movement consisting of educated, bilingual members who have a parent or grandparent from Europe or studied abroad and grew up eating a Mexican version of French or Spanish food. To get some sense of this group, Laudan writes, “Imagine if in the U.S. the director of the National Endowment for the Arts, a few Harvard faculty, a fifth-generation Rockefeller, the wife of Alan Greenspan, and assorted poets and novelists were all involved in researching, cooking, and promoting American food.”

When Cámara opened Contramar eighteen years ago, the terrain was still remarkably conservative. Though her legendary tuna tostadas and the pescado a la talla—a whole red fish, split open, painted with opposing bands of green herbs and ruddy chili paste, and grilled—are now mimicked culinary icons, serving simple, beachy fare in the 1990s was a shocker, just like her position as a young, independent female restaurant owner. “I would meet people at the door and they would ask to speak to the owner because they just assumed that a young woman could not be the owner of a place,” she recalls. “I just didn’t think about it. I just kept doing what I wanted to do.”

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.

Reygadas is somewhat weary of the woman question.  She admits, “Sometimes, I think that it is really silly to try and break it down by gender, no? Because at the end of the day, more than gender, I want people who want to work, people that want to work hard. I want passionate, dedicated people in my kitchen. It doesn’t matter if they are men or women.”

As the industry as a whole becomes more welcoming to all stripes, how power plays out in the daily repetitions on the hot line among new generations of cooks is key. I pose the question of whether gender has ever been an issue in the kitchen to Paola Guillermo Guadarrama, twenty-two, who is in her last year of culinary school. Over breakfast, she effusively tells me about her stages in Lalo! and MeroToro and how she is looking forward to practicing in Europe, maybe Tokyo. She is bright and eager. “Of course,” she says matter of factly, “there was a cook who started saying really gross things to me. It was awful. I told the chef at the time, but he didn’t really do anything about it. It got worse and eventually, I said ‘Hey! If you don’t respect me, then I don’t respect you.’ He calmed down after that.” She shrugs it off as the reality of working in a contemporary kitchen, happy to pave her own way.