The Patriarchy of Food TV: Watching Netflix's Final Table With My Sons

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I want my sons to be great cooks. I want them to host me at Thanksgiving with feasts they’ve sweat over. I want them to wow their future romantic partners with delicious meals. I’m teaching them both cooking and the skills of hosting, celebrating with food, and establishing culinary traditions.

So we watch a lot of cooking shows and cooking competitions. The Great British Baking Show is a favorite, and my son Tom likes high energy competitions like Cupcake Wars and Chopped. Compared to so much media out there, I like the values of cooking competitions and feel like they teach pretty good life lessons. But I have one particular problem: the gender balance tends to skew very definitely male on Netflix’s Final Table.

We’ve been really into Netflix’s intense competition Final Table, which brings together a global cadre of 24 highly skilled chefs who compete against each other for the opportunity to cook for nine of the world’s finest superstar chefs (6 men, 3 women). The winner joins the nine masters as a peer at the “final table.” Judges include cultural “ambassadors” from each country’s cuisine cooked, and the master chefs judge a showdown at the end of each episode. No money is at stake, and the competition is intense but collegial. The viewer understands that these are professionals who respect each other; it’s a good room to be in.

The chefs on Final Table work remarkably hard. “Chefs sacrifice a tremendous amount,” says Canadian competitor Darren MacLean, tearing up over a significant win. Lost family time, stress, and lack of balance are constant threads on the show, but these people love their work, and they exhibit true passion. I like my kids to see that while still being exposed to the realities of hard choices.

The show is all about skill. The technique and precision of the chefs is inspiring, and it’s been exciting to watch the creativity and breadth of knowledge with which they approach each challenge. It’s also a very international show, with languages and cultures tossed around like so much salt and pepper.

Ultimately, the show is about teamwork. Because the chefs cook in pairs, they’re only as good as each other. What a fantastic lesson for my boys, who are eight and nine!

screenshot of Final Table trailer

But here’s the thing: men win the show. At the beginning of the series, five of the chefs are women and 19 are men. Three of the nine “masters” are women, and their introductions are always prefaced by their gender-specific accolades, à la “She was the first woman chef to…”

Spoiler alert: by episode six, all the women are gone. The finale is all white guys. I asked my boys if they noticed what had changed as the episodes progressed. After a few prompts, they said yes, but it doesn’t bother them that all the final chefs are men. Tom said, “I’m used to seeing a lot of men, and since I’m a boy I’m used to it too.”

It’s easy to say “well, this is a competition of skill, judged by men and women, and the men prevailed”, except that I know what a male-dominated profession fine dining is. It was only last week that Chef Dominique Crenn won her third Michelin star, making her the first woman in the United States to achieve this culinary apex. And get this: “While there are more than a hundred male chefs worldwide with the prestigious three stars, just six women” held the accolade in 2015. The number of women awarded stars has decreased in the past few years. The media is full of stories protesting the patriarchy of fine dining, but the numbers are extremely slow to change.

Indeed, by dint of their age or ethnic and geographic status, the women contestants in Final Table were presented as underdogs from the start, whether or not it was true. This allows Netflix et al to shift any blame onto the “pipeline problem,” waiting for some future date when the women will theoretically catch up to the men in training or qualifications.

The “pipeline problem” is a symptom, not a cause. Anyone who insists there aren't enough talented women chefs just isn't looking very hard.

Six years ago, renowned chef Jody Adams asked me to join a panel about why food is so male dominated. Knowing nothing in particular about fine dining, I simply shared the data I know to be true from almost every profession: The “pipeline problem” is a symptom, not a cause. Anyone who insists there aren’t enough talented women chefs just isn’t looking very hard.

This week, I asked Jody Adams if Netflix had a responsibility to present a more diverse cast of accomplished chefs. She said, “I think it is the responsibility of anybody in power that there is a realistic representation of the population.”

Jody also notes “One thing I know having been on Top Chef Masters is that the shows are manipulated. They calculate who they shine the spotlight on and when. They do the editing. Everyone has a role to play and sometimes, producers think women chefs are too “well behaved.” With the exception of young South African chef Ash Heeger, I felt this was the case on Final Table. Most of the women didn’t get a ton of airtime. Adams says wryly, “I was told if you didn’t have a lot of tattoos and a prison record you weren’t that interesting in food culture. Men do a really good job telling their superhero story. Everyone on Final Table is a superhero, and yet there are certain of them who present more stereotypically as the one who stands out as a superhero.

“We have a responsibility to change the world. It's not going to be done by Netflix unless there's pressure to have it happen. We're starting to have the power.”

What Adams knows for sure: “We have a responsibility to change the world. It’s not going to be done by Netflix unless there’s pressure to have it happen. We’re starting to have the power.” Chef Monique Fiso, a powerful New Zealander who left the show halfway through, said on her Instagram recently that she's been gratified and surprised to become a bit of a feminist icon since being one of the last women to leave Final Table.

All in all, the white male extravaganza of Final Table makes for conflicting watching with my young sons. I love that they love cooking and take it seriously, but I hate the messages they not so subtly absorb: that mom makes most of their mac ‘n’ cheese while the most exciting cooking they see on TV seems the be a man’s domain.

Morra Aarons-Mele

Morra Aarons-Mele is author of Hiding in the Bathroom: A Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and founder of social impact agency Women Online and The Mission List.