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“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
~ Maya Angelou
It is said that the future belongs to the curious, those who do not fear to explore it, question it and turn it inside out – enter Charlotte Druckman, the curious warrior who courageously exposes the many different systematic injustices facing women in the food industry. Using words as weapons, Druckman unites the voices of the many talented female chefs, writers, critics, eaters and influencers who - for too long - have been dismissed, limited and discriminated against.
As an author, journalist, and food writer, Druckman has spent most of her professional life witnessing “the dominant thinking or supposition in the food world that ‘male’ or ‘masculinity’ is the norm, and qualitatively better because of that.” Her books, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, an uncensored, behind-the-scenes tell-all, told through the voices of 70 female chefs, and Women on Food, an unconventional anthology of essays, stories and interviews with over 115 extraordinary women in the food, bring to light not only the pressures and expectations of working in a male dominated industry, but also celebrate the influence women have in the world of food.
DLISH had the honor of speaking with our forever girl crush about the importance of addressing the inequality and discriminations in the food industry, the inspiration behind her writings, the impact of COVID on the industry as well as her new book Kitchen Remix: 75 Recipes.
Mona Bavar: How did you get into journalism? Food writing?
Charlotte Druckman: I loved writing from an early age, but didn’t really think much of it. (At first, I wanted to be a Broadway musical star, then a litigator). I wrote my first “novel” in 2nd grade. It was titled “LACE,” because I’d seen my mother reading a novel with that title. Turns out, hers was a trashy soap opera of sorts. Mine was about little girls who ventured into the forest and encountered a sleeping monster. I guess fiction was my first love, as a reader at least.
But I suspect the seed was planted in middle school when I started reading my parents’ magazines (New York Magazine, W Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Elle, Elle Décor, Food & Wine, Gourmet…)—and asked for my own subscriptions to Sassy and Seventeen. I thought they were the coolest thing ever. That’s where the seed was planted. My favorite part has always been the Table of Contents, seeing how issues were put together—the order of the articles on the page, balance and flow between front-of-book and back-of-book, and the visual layout. This is something digital publications, no matter how well-produced, aesthetically wowing or intuitively constructed, will ever be able to replicate for me. As a creative person, that really spoke to me. But as a writer, I gravitated to journalism. I was the co-editor-in-chief of the newspaper at my high school, then got to college, found the reporting assignments I was given a bit dull and ended up with my own op-ed column instead.
So, by the time I finished high school, it’d be fair to say I knew I wanted to work in publishing, preferably at a magazine. I wanted to be an editor-in-chief of a magazine, but then I also wanted to be a journalist, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as I figured out along the way.
Women on Food by Charlotte Druckman
I grew up in New York City and with a significant amount of privilege. Because of that, I had access to internships a lot of other kids my age wouldn’t have had (and I hope this isn’t how it’s done anymore). I started interning at magazines the summer after I graduated high school, which definitely gave me a head start and set me up going forward. After graduating from college, I took a detour… to academia. I was convinced I wanted to be an art history professor (YEP!) and worked in an art gallery, then went to grad school to do that. I’m a lapsed Ph. D student.
I missed the Real World, and pop culture, and my magazines too much. I went back to that and worked on staff at Daily Candy (remember Daily Candy?), in its earlier days, when it was just starting to expand. Then I went to Town & Country, followed by Food & Wine (note: I covered Entertaining & Design there, so, like, everything, including the kitchen sink, but not food or wine, except peripherally), then O, The Oprah Magazine. I was really unhappy at O, and people I trusted told me I should go freelance. So I did. That’s when I realized I could focus on writing, which was exciting, and that I could try writing about a broader range of subjects, including food.
I grew up in a food-obsessed family. That probably sounds like hyperbole. I think it’s an understatement. My mom’s a terrific cook and cooked regularly when I was younger (she still does, I don’t mean to suggest she doesn’t… but maybe a little less now). My father is a true devotee of restaurants, especially those of New York City, where he also grew up. I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t work in the restaurant industry or food media who cares so much or is so passionate about them or has such a fixated memory of where and what he’s eaten. (Honestly, I think he might love them more than those of us who have a professional connection to them, because we’re jaded, and it’s “work” for us… and for him, it’s just total pleasure.)
My parents started taking us to restaurants as soon as they thought we would be able to sit through a meal, which was really young. And my mom started baking with me on Thursday afternoons when she came home from work early, as soon as I could help stir or lick the bowl. So, food was really part of my existence but not in a way that would have made it occur to me to think of it as something to write about, because it wasn’t something I’d actively studied. It was just, I don’t know, normal to me to be so into it, and to know as much as I did. (Of course it wasn’t normal, and, again, a lot of it had to do with how and where I grew up and what I had access and exposure to.)
But I loved READING food writing, and I’d always seen cooking as a creative outlet, and I began to see that maybe food was actually exactly that place where journalism and magazines didn’t have to feel like two contradictory things to want to do. I realized food was a conduit—it was a universal entity, that was connected to everything, every aspect of culture, high and low, but was also a fundamentally sociological and political entity. You could talk about economics, science, gender, race, so many things that were often seen as too “difficult” or not “fun” enough if you started with food. For me, it was the perfect intersection of pop culture and critical thinking—a way to take complicated or uncomfortable ideas and make them feel accessible and familiar, and maybe even an engaging, fun thing to think about. That was pretty idealist of me, especially back then (this would be around 2005 or 2006). But that’s how I got into food writing, and how I found my voice.
Women on Food by Charlotte Druckman
MB: What was the inspiration behind your unconventional anthology, Women on Food?
CD: Anger and frustration. I saw the #MeToo train gathering speed and how one of its early targets was the restaurant industry… but it didn’t seem to be stopping at the Food Media station. It took me a little while to realize that, and to realize how angry I was about the sexism that’s run rampant through my own industry. I’d spent so much time looking at what was happening to other people in the food world, and, often, to women. But I hadn’t thought or allowed myself to really consider what it had meant to be a woman in my own field, and the anger started to bubble up.
Then, once I started thinking beyond myself—because I was coming from a place of privilege no matter how much I’d experienced sexism, lower pay rates, or been made to feel smaller or held back—and thought about women in food media, collectively, I knew that not only was I not alone, but that there also had to be many women who’d gone through a lot worse, and been kept back, paid even less or ignored much more.
What made this all the more riling, was the fact that, for so long, writing about food was the one thing women were allowed to do, and, really, were silo-ed into doing, because we weren’t seen fit to do any “serious” journalism. But we could give practical advice (to other women, of course) about how to cook.
For the most part (obviously there were a few male exceptions, like, James Beard and Craig Claiborne, for example), women created food as an editorial genre, To be clear, the women who were most visible in that, had the most agency and continue to get the most credit were white. Many women were excluded, along with the food of their cultures, or else were just erased from the records, their work uncredited.
Once food became fodder for “lifestyle” branding, and a legitimate (i.e. profitable) source of entertainment, emerging as a pop cultural phenomenon, more and more men got in on it. And they started filling all the power seats, and, from the point of view of writers, getting the meatier, more “serious” assignments and paid more for those. They were also held up as geniuses, heroes, tortured visionaries (and this applies to chefs more overtly, but it extends to the male food writers who came in with their often derivative gonzo-style writing). In short, they took over what was ours. Or that’s how it appeared to me, fueling my anger.
I wanted to do something to take it back, even if only just in a single project. I wanted to celebrate that legacy, but also to revisit it, with a critical eye, making sure it was inclusive. The idea was to give women a place to write the way they wanted, how they wanted—to get to do the kinds of stories we’ve always wanted to and not been permitted to. My theory was that if we were given that freedom, we could produce something just as good if not better, and more complex, original and creative than the dominant food writing that’s out there.
I’d seen the book Women in Clothes, which is a collaboration between three writers (Leanne Shapton, Heidi Julvaits and Sheila Heti) whose work I’d always admired, individually, for its creativity and experimenting with storytelling. It’s not an anthology. It’s more like a dialogue and a survey, combined, examining how women interact with and feel about/in their clothes. My initial thought was, could this be done with food? (And, by the way, I’d still really like to work on a project like that with a few of my colleagues.) But when I was thinking about doing an anthology and celebrating women’s food writing, I went back to it.
It was important to me, if I was going to question what food writing is and what it could be, to do the same with the format I used to do that. So I wanted to revisit what an anthology is, and expand that. I wanted it to be visual, and for all of the work in it to be original. And I didn’t want it to be just essays, which can be heavy and seem really academic. Changing up the different sections so you had call/responses to a range of questions and including interviews with some of the women I most look up to, who work in food in some capacity, allowed me to have more women in the book, and to branch out from its being solely focused on food writers and food writing, although that’s really the anchor. It also allowed me to make it fun, and even silly, with a few surprises thrown in.
So, in the end, it really did present readers with an alternative to the standard anthology—and maybe, to resemble something a little more like a hybrid between an anthology and a magazine, or zine, which… that makes a lot of sense based on my love of magazines.
Women on Food by Charlotte Druckman
MB: How similar were the responses for the questions you sent to the women who participated in the book? What was the main theme?
CD: What was so amazing, and both inspiring and disturbing, was how dissimilar and ranging the answers were: inspiring when you’re talking about some of the quirkier or light-hearted questions, and even the harder ones; to see that level of honesty from everyone was incredible and I still feel really lucky to have had them trust me with their openness. But it was disturbing when you’re talking about women sharing different forms of harassment they’ve experienced, or stereotypes they’ve confronted, or ways in which they’ve felt complicit in holding up the white patriarchy that is the food world, and the world we live in.
It’s impossible for there to be a single main theme with a book like this, and that’s kind of the point. We contain multitudes.
MB: “Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe women chefs (or really, women, period)?” is a question you asked the women in your book Women on Food. How would you answer this?
CD: Well, of course, after I read everyone’s responses to this question, I began hating all of the words and phrases they called out. In general, I cringe at any terminology that presumes or makes a distinction between something being male vs. not-male, which is, I think the root of the problem here. The dominant thinking or supposition in the food world (and beyond—but it feels more extreme in the restaurant industry), is that “male” or “masculinity” is the norm, and qualitatively better because of that.
MB: There is very little recognition given to the many talented women in the food industry. Why do you think this is? Do you see it changing? What else needs to be addressed?
CD: Well, related to my last response, if men and manliness have been selected for and championed because they’ve owned the show for so long, then of course it’s easy to see how women are so easily erased from the picture. It’s the same for BIPOC (or anyone who isn’t white). What’s unfortunate, is that people tend to accept this at face value. They don’t stop to think about WHY it’s the norm in the first place that there are so many men in this industry. Maybe instead of asking why is so little recognition given to women, we should ask why is so MUCH recognition given to men? What we would find is not that they are actually better at being chefs, or opening restaurants, or running a business (or a magazine), or managing people, or even cooking in a professional kitchen. We would have to face the fact that we just assumed that was so, because it was all we saw, not because there was a difference in ability, skill or personality along gender lines.
Women, like BIPOC, were kept out of the kinds of restaurant kitchens (and culinary schools that feed them) that have been deemed the benchmarks of the industry—those influenced by the French culinary industry and in the rarified space of fine dining. They’re held up as the pinnacle. They’re also the most expensive to produce, and the ones where, traditionally, the most lauded chefs (and those who received the most media attention) have worked. Women, again, especially those of color, are also less likely to secure investor money (in part due to lack of the exposure awards and press would give them access to) or bank loans.
So not only has it been harder for them to work (and be WELCOMED if they did get hired) in those very (white) male spaces, but they also have had a harder time opening places of their own, unless they’ve been smaller, scrappier, and different from the “right” template.
What's sad is that most of the innovation and creativity in business model, and commitment to serving a community and thinking more holistically about the sustainability of a restaurant in terms of labor and ingredient sourcing, is found in these smaller establishments that don't necessarily follow the rules... but create new ones. You see more diversity and creativity in the food, as well.
It’s not just, then, that women and BIPOC need more access to money or more opportunity in general. it’s that the way we categorize and rank restaurants and talent needs to change completely. We have to stop valuing one kind of restaurant over another just because it follows some outdated, expensive, exploitative model but looks pretty on the outside and costs a lot to dine at… and is fronted by white men.
Kitchen Remix by Charlotte Druckman
MB: Do you feel that one of the positive outcomes of the current pandemic for the food industry could be that it will dwarf issues like racism, sexism, class, etc. - in a way forcing the industry to unify, regardless of sex or color, in order to defeat a very serious attack?
CD: I hope not. I don’t see that as a positive or plausible outcome at all. I don’t believe we can have any real unity until we confront the racism (first and foremost), sexism and classism and that applies to food media, the food industry, and to society at large. If anything, the pandemic is bringing these issues to the fore, at least in the United States.
MB: How do you think COVID has changed/will change the food industry?
CD: Restaurants have already had to start rethinking the fundamental structure and purpose of their businesses in order to survive. They’ve had to find new ways to exist, and many of the changes they’ve made have rendered the restaurant model completely different. They’re not just about dining anymore, really. I’m hoping we see more developments in the vein of cooperative or community-supported restaurants, and hybrid functionality. I’m hoping the more creative, versatile and community-focused restaurants are the ones that survive. But they’re also the ones that seem to be in the most danger of failing—the smaller, neighborhood restaurants that form the fabric of a community. I’m worried we’re losing the already precarious middle ground, basically—that we’ll be left with either super high-end fine dining restaurants that are designed to win Michelin stars and are driven by tourism, or chain restaurants, fast food, or fast casual. I think the major restaurant groups will be fine, but this just adds to the picture that we’re going to wind up in a world of monopolies of a sort, with little diversity not just in the kinds of food being served and celebrated, but in terms of innovation and the rise of younger, mold-breaking talent.
MB: What do you think the most important challenge facing the food industry is today?
CD: LABOR: Changing the way consumers think about and value labor and prioritizing equality and fairness in pay, better treatment and more opportunity for career growth, and to learn and earn. For too long, there’s been a disconnect; diners think of restaurants as an outlet for escape, pleasure and entertainment, without appreciating or understanding how much work (and exploitation) goes into that. Restaurateurs and chefs need to change their thinking, too, but I think, influenced by food media, consumers always lead the way. If we make the treatment of staff and a pricing that accounts for the work invested criteria in how or whether we give press or praise to a restaurant, and we can get consumers to do the same, employers and investors will be forced to follow.
THE ENVIRONMENT/CLIMATE CHANGE: Sustainability is crucial, and this implicates labor as well. Here, we’re talking about eco-conscious business practices and models, and that extends beyond energy consumption or the sourcing of product, or seasonality; it’s being mindful, again, of who’s doing the work to get those ingredients to you in the first place and how they’re being treated.
Kitchen Remix by Charlotte Druckman
MB: Can you tell us a little about your new book Kitchen Remix: 75 Recipes.
CD: It’s all about how to be a more resourceful, flexible cook. Instead of just giving readers a collection of individual recipes, which most cookbooks seem to do now, this one uses recipes to show you how to use the same set of ingredients in a few very different dishes. You learn different techniques you can apply to rice, or a chicken breast, or eggs, but you’re also learning how to adapt and swap ingredients, so that you can use what you have. There are 25 sets of 3 ingredients, and for each, 3 very different recipes that incorporate those 3 ingredients. Some savory, some sweet. Examples of trios are: lamb, dates & chickpeas; tomatoes, bread & ricotta; carrots, cashews & coconut; shrimp, tomatoes & almonds. For the shrimp, tomatoes & almonds, you can make a chilled almond soup with poached shrimp and candied tomatoes; busiate (pasta) with a Trapanese-style pesto, or a garlicky shrimp salad with almonds and tomatoes in a buttermilk dressing.
MB: Any last words?
CD: Yeah, here are some things I really like right now.
Nearly 60 years after the fact, the 1962 live recordings of a concert Ella Fitzgerald gave in Berlin have been released as an album and it's amazing. Genius.
Hario Cold Brew Tea bottle and the VERY BEST OOLONG from Té Company in NYC
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Read more DLISH interviews with talents in the world of Food: