Adventures in Feministory: Marthe Distel, the First Top Chef
With Top Chef boiling down to its final two episodes (go Jennifer, go!) now seems as good a time as any to delve into the history of the fancy world of professional chefs. From Top Chef (yes, a television series, but fancy nonetheless) to the James Beard Award, there are tons of impressive accolades out there for ambitious chefs to get their knives on, and we love to watch it happen. So how did this culinary world come about? And is it true that a woman is behind it all? (Spoiler alert! Yes, a woman is behind it all!)
For a bit of background information here, we of course must travel to 18th century France (bienvenue!). At that time, historical party monster and misogynist King Louiz XV was trash-talking women by saying that they didn't know how to cook, and that his royal mouth would only eat gourmet food prepared by men (apparently his royal mouth didn't care about the subpar hygiene practiced at Versailles as long as there were no girls allowed). Well, one of the king's mistresses, Madame du Barry, thought he was full of it, and she invited a woman to cook (in secret) for her famous lover. Surprise – he thought the food was awesome! du Barry demanded that the king bestow formal recognition upon this woman chef to prove he was wrong about gender and gourmet cooking. Though du Barry was executed in 1793 (Versailles wasn't a great place for mistresses) her ideas about women chefs carried on into the next century . . .
Fast forward to 19th century France (bienvenue!). Women still weren't cooking much professionally, but there was one ambitious and clever mademoiselle who was about to change all that. In 1895, French journalist Marthe Distel started a cooking magazine called La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu (The Blue Ribbon Chef – And she even used the feminine form of the word chef – Booyah!). To attract readers, Distel had the great idea of offering cooking classes where magazine subscribers could observe professional chefs and learn the tricks of the trade. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)
Though the magazine eventually folded (see Gourmet? You aren't alone) the cooking classes continued to increase in popularity. Distel helped to found Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in 1896, and by the time of her death in the late 1930s it was still running strong. Though the school closed during WWII, it was purchased by another woman (Elisabeth Brassart) after the war and reopened to its former prestige. In fact, Le Cordon Bleu remains one of the top culinary schools in the world, with locations in 17 countries. It is still considered to be the start of formal culinary training as we know it.
So the next time you're watching The Food Network, or Travel, or Bravo, or any of the other channels devoted almost entirely to the culinary arts and the prestige they offer, remember Marthe Distel. If it weren't for her wanting to drive up subscription numbers, the entire culinary industry would look a lot different today. Now there's a real Top Chef.
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