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Rozanne Gold on the First Food Revolution, Female Chefs, and Food Criticism

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In April, I attended the panel discussion, "Feeding Your Passion: Celebrating NYU Women in the Culinary Arts," at my alma mater. Moderated by Jennifer Berg, the discussion was lively and thought provoking, but only touched upon a few of the many topics I had hoped. With too many questions for the time allotted, I followed up with several of the panelists. This is the last of those interviews.

Four-time winner of the prestigious James Beard Award, Rozanne Gold started her culinary career as first chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch. From there she helped re-create New York's magical Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center (where she was co-owner and consulting chef for 15 years), the legendary Windows on the World, and three of New York's three-star restaurants as Chef-Director of the restaurant consulting group, the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. Now the author of 11 acclaimed cookbooks, Gold is known as a food-trends pundit; her work has appeared in dozens of well-known publications, including a column in Bon Appétit magazine.

Louise McCready: At last week's event celebrating NYU Women in the Culinary Arts, the mediator asked the panelists about their inspiration. You said that you carried a cookbook around with you at the age of five, your mother was a good cook, and you remember watching the Galloping Gourmet. However, you also mentioned you were initially on an academic path of to a graduate degree in sexual studies, but liked the food world better. In food photography and on the Food Network, food and female chefs are often sexualized. How did you go from sexual studies to food?

Rozanne Gold: As an undergrad at Tufts, I majored in Psychology and Education. The mid-70s was the time of the sexual revolution. The whole field of sexuality was new -- and it was quite interesting to me -- so I chose that as a graduate course of studies. But food seemed to include sexuality and even more -- it was also something very new in the world. There were some real parallels about those disciplines emerging together. There was a lot of energy and excitement and opportunities to be a pioneer as a woman chef and as a sex therapist. Dr. Ruth was so famous; this was when her aura was looming. I never consciously made a decision to be a chef because I didn't know that was a possibility. I'd always read about food and dreamed about traveling. Both food and travel were exquisitely entangled. I always felt very dreamy about food. When I was a teenager though I was quite heavy, and probably had some food issues too, but food was very connected to pleasure.

LM: Ha, I was a fat kid too. That's an interesting point that you make about the 1970s as both the sexual and food revolution. Today, people are again saying that there is a food revolution going on, partly because people are just more interested in food, but partly in response to obesity, which, as you know, is unfortunately a huge problem.

RG: Unfortunately, all of those issues have merged. I am a big believer in separating them again because there are so many facets to food: historical, cultural, health and wellness, contemporary trends. As far as I'm concerned, the food revolution -- the real one -- started in the mid 70s. What's happening now is very exciting but it's the food revolution revisited by a younger audience -- which is great because somehow it skipped somewhere in the middle.

In the mid-70s we were playing off of a lot of pretty predictable food. When you went from one restaurant to another, they were pretty similar. My husband, who was Joe Baum's partner, used to joke that if you tore the top off the menu of two dozen restaurants, you wouldn't know where you were. Ironically, if you did that now, it would be the same because hyper-creativity has taken over and what you see among many new chefs is a lack of disciple and intellectual rigor.

You know in The Wizard of Oz where everything was in black and white and then all of a sudden Judy Garland opens the door and it's like whoa, everything is transformed into color? That's what happened in the mid-70s. We all walked through the door. It was the first time everyone broke loose in terms of both sex and food. It wasn't about doing continental; so many restaurants back then were a combination of French and Italian or they were very specifically ethnic. But then food became very global. There was lots of color. There was a lot of experimentation. There was a lot of what I call borderless cooking; it wasn't so much fused flavors as newly introducing foods and ingredients from many different places. Restaurant design became very important, with the integration of the menu graphics and the design and the food on the plate. It was also the beginning of the wine revolution, which started slowly in California in the mid-70s. It was a very exciting time and it was jumpstarted by nouvelle cuisine in France.

LM: I was going to tie that in to my next question. You were talking about when people starting to go to restaurants specifically for the chef as opposed to...

JG: That came much later. In the 70s it was still the restaurateur who was known, the guy at the door. People didn't know chefs names with the exemption of André Soltner at Lutèce and just a few other French chefs around town.

LM: Regarding chefs, the difference between male and female chefs is often reduced to the fact that men are concerned with the end result while women consider food as an extension of their caregiving. Do you see any differences between the way men and women cook or do you find gender comparisons over-simplified?

RG: Definitely oversimplified. First of all, are we talking home cooks or restaurants? If we stick with restaurants, it may be heresy to say this, but in the very beginning, the difference between men's cooking and women's cooking had to do with experience and exposure. Women -- just a handful -- started coming into the cooking scene in the 70s. When the organization Les Dames d'Escoffier International got started 35 years ago, there was a cap of 100 women, which they never thought they'd reach, because they could barely find a dozen women professionally involved with food. Women were not the ones in cooking schools or in a lot of professional kitchens at that point, so of course they were coming from a different place. I don't think it's about men or women; I think it's about a level of expertise. Once you get to a certain level, I don't think there's any difference at all. Motivation, what is in someone's heart when they're cooking, might be a little different, but I think great, technically well-done food is genderless.

LM: Obviously, the restaurant is still a male-dominated field, but when you started it was much more so. What was it like working in the restaurant industry thirty years ago?

RG: I'm inclined to say less and less about male dominance because it's all changing. If you look at the makeup of medical school, law school, engineering, and cooking school students, you're going to see at least half women now, so I think we need to take a good look at society and not demonize cooking as a field that's male dominated. Women owning restaurants in big cities is a different issue because that has to do more with economics, backers, and experience. But women certainly are opening their own restaurants and have come a long, long way.

But you have to take into account that cooking -- not cheffing -- is basically a blue-collar job, so you'd expect to find fewer women doing grunt work in kitchens in the same way that you'd expect to find fewer women bricklayers.

There's been a lot of criticism that there aren't more women executive chefs in restaurants. If you were to call the top ten Zagat restaurant chefs in New York and ask, do you have a lot of women beating your doors down to become executive chefs and have you rejected them, I think you would get no and no. Women make different choices. They want to have families. They don't all want to work 7 days a week. They don't want to work until 2 in the morning. So women are opening their own businesses -- smaller restaurants, catering businesses. Women are very entrepreneurial. What it was like though was really just, again, another sexual preference, but virgin territory. In many of the kitchens where I worked, I often was the first woman who did.

LM: Again, going back to your beginnings, you mentioned during the panel that in 1978, Ed Gifford, the press agent of Gracie Mansion, suggested you keep a diary while you worked there. As you pointed out, now you would need to sign a confidentiality agreement before working at such a high profile place. Besides the annoyance of food bloggers' flashing cameras at meals or over-hyped flame wars between chefs and critics, how do you think the increased publicity given to restaurants and chefs has changed the industry itself?

RG: I haven't had that conversation with too many restaurant chefs, but I would love to. There are two factors at work these days. First, we now have "star PR" experts who are hired by restaurants because of their access to the press and who now even are judges on TV cooking competitions. And then there are the vast armies of food bloggers, Tweeters, Yelpers and the like. Once upon a time, food criticism was taken more seriously as a discipline and as something that really belonged to people who were very knowledgeable and experienced. Now, anyone with a Blackberry can spread good or bad words about a restaurant instantly to thousands of people. At the same time, unfortunately, newspapers are slicing payrolls so lots of critics are out of work. As far as I'm concerned, just because people eat out doesn't mean they're entitled to critically analyze a meal. They can say, I liked it, I didn't like it, I had a good time, it was fun, it was noisy, the pork belly was better last night at this other restaurant. Most people wouldn't ever think of analyzing a classical music concert or an art exhibit without knowledge and experience, so it's odd that many people believe, "I eat, so therefore I'm equal to a professional food critic."

I feel food has become a language for young people to communicate in a world where they're so disconnected from other socializing activities. We get back to something very primal with that and I think it's positive. I worry about this generation -- I have a 14-year-old daughter -- that communicates in a techno-emotionless shorthand language, so the fact that food is bringing so many people together, there's so much discussion about it, and so much interest where it's almost getting out of control, is actually charming. The bad news is that I often go to new restaurants where younger people are spending lots of money, and when food hits the table, the first thing that happens is that outcome the picture phones and digital cameras and they'll are shooting pictures and uploading them for other to see -- even before they tasted anything. They may not even know if what they're eating is really good -- in fact I'm afraid they don't know the difference -- but they're broadcasting their e-opinions for all the world to read.

LM: Along the lines of what you said about the younger generation using food to communicate, there as an interesting article I just read that suggested younger people are more inclined to order small plates because we live in a society where we share so much already, be it our Facebook profile or Twitter. I thought that was an interesting conclusion to the study.

RG: Was that written by a young person?

LM: I don't know. I'll send you that article. Along the lines of restaurant food now, you noted a food critic's attention to color on the plate in a recent restaurant review of the Los Angeles Times as an example of increased attention to beauty and artistry on the plate. Do you foresee this as the next logical trend in a society that fetishizes its over-abundant food supply? Have you seen other examples of this attention to beauty?

RG: Yes, I see it very much as a trend. Let's remember, though, that attention to beauty on the plate and breaking the traditional form of starch- protein-vegetable really started with nouvelle cuisine. What I think is happening is that it is expanding to all food, all across the board. It's very important because again, with all the food photography, the instantaneous everything, we have become very visual. We make a strong connection between the beauty of food and the taste. Can it be overdone? Yes.

The exciting element is not just the composition of the plate, but that there are so many beautiful ingredients available now -- with the use of micro-greens and micro herbs, pea shoots, nasturtiums, radishes in 10 different colors, and carrots in six different colors. Going back to the Oz reference, all of a sudden all of the food on our plate is in Technicolor. Once upon a time you had curly parsley as a garnish; you didn't have a very broad palette to play with. We can thank our farmers, and people who are paying attention not just to the beauty of food on the plate, but to the beauty of their gardens and what they're growing.

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