A woman cooks in a nice kitchen, outside her window lurks the shadowy silhouette of a man
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Julia Child’s kitchen is full of light. The preeminent cooking instructor and celebrity chef of the 20th century, Child is credited with introducing the American public to international fine dining. On her PBS television show “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs,” a charismatic chef sports colorful silk blouses, decorates her countertop with fresh flowers and delights guests with her inviting disposition.

Child passed away in 2004, but clicking through cooking channels shows that her legacy of elegant food and bright, tasteful presentation remains. On Food Network, Italian-American chef Giada De Laurentiis sprinkles salt over pesto crostini in her immaculate white kitchen. Meanwhile, on the Cooking Channel’s “Real Girl’s Kitchen,” actress Haylie Duff beams over a cornucopia of mini muffins for her Christmas brunch.

The world of celebrity chefs displayed across American channel guides is narrowly defined. On Food Network, producers create a utopian atmosphere for their female celebrity chefs. Women never break a sweat while drizzling olive oil or carrying large salads out to their perfectly manicured gardens. The channels are aiming to sell products, so, of course, televised kitchens are aspirationally flooded with sunlight. Our favorite chefs don spotless aprons when using their sponsored KitchenAid mixers and never lose their megawatt smile. The aim of these shows is to sell a heavenly world to American women.

There is something more, however, lurking beneath the idyllic Hamptons kitchen fantasy that Food Network attempts to sell to its viewers. The crisp tablecloths and summer cocktails hide a much darker culture offstage. Behind the idealized facade in female celebrity cooking shows lies a culture of subjugation and lies, with each shot curated to mask rampant sexual harassment behind the camera. 

In order to explore how food television enables offscreen abuse, we must start by examining how the networks position their male and female chefs. The current Food Network schedule hosts a variety of cooking shows that are filmed in commercial kitchens, home kitchens, external restaurants and sets. The location of cooking shows is essential in establishing a gender disparity, one where female chefs are confined to the home and men operate in the outside world.

Almost every current cooking show hosted by a female chef, including “The Pioneer Woman,” “Barefoot Contessa,” “Delicious Miss Brown,” “Valerie’s Home Cooking” and “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen,” is set inside a warmly lit, delicately decorated home kitchen. In contrast, shows hosted by a male chefs often take place in a polar opposite environment, one filled with competition, edge and aggression. At their mildest, the male-hosted shows are simply centered on competition, like “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “The Great Food Truck Race.” At their most extreme, male chefs verbally accost competitors, like Gordon Ramsay’s famed expletive-filled outbursts on “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares.” 

Shows like “Beat Bobby Flay” are styled like a gladiator ring, complete with a live audience and dimmed stadium-style lighting. Although women have competed in Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” (a competition series where sabotage and “trash talk” are highly encouraged), the host and three of the four judges are men. With few exceptions, any male-hosted shows that take place in a domestic setting are set at a backyard grill (take “Boy Meets Grill” and “BBQ With Bobby Flay”) and feature large slabs of meat and giant fires rather than the graceful plating and small griddles of their female counterparts.

The almost comical difference between watching Rachael Ray delicately twirl pasta and Robert Irvine scream at small-business owners has insidious consequences within the food media industry. By mandating perfection and passivity from its female hosts and encouraging aggressive behavior from its male hosts, food channels have erased accountability and permitted abuse.

In 2015, media outlets exposed Bobby Flay for an alleged three-year affair with his personal assistant, Elyse Tirrell. At the time, Flay was at the height of his power and popularity, while Tirrell was financially dependent on Flay and 22 years younger. Rather than be branded as the perpetrator of a highly inappropriate relationship, Flay was shielded by his macho cult of personality while Tirrell was publicly named, by a friend of Flay’s wife, “the Monica Lewinsky of the food world.”

Mario Batali, a chef who boasted an empire ranging from 16 restaurants to roles in “Iron Chef America,” “Spain … on the Road Again and “The Chew,” was formally accused of sexual misconduct by four female chefs and other employees. Although Batali was acquitted of indecent-assault-and-battery charges in 2017, he stated that claims made against him did “match up” with his past behavior. Even with his acknowledgment of guilt, Batali still made a mockery of the charges by including a recipe for pizza-dough cinnamon rolls in the postscript of his formal apology email.

It would be ludicrous to draw a direct causal link between hosting hypermasculine cooking shows and committing sexual harassment, especially when a majority of male hosts have no charges against them. However, with Johnny Iuzzini of “The Great American Baking Show” accused of sexual misconduct and John Besh of “Top Chef and “Iron Chef America” accused of gender-based discrimination and harassment, it’s clear that the networks foster a culture of complacency.

Flay, Batali, Iuzzini and Besh are not outliers in an otherwise professional and high-functioning work environment. They are predators who were enabled by a culture of monolithic television networks that permits cults of personality to shield their male chefs from immediate consequences.

While Bobby Flay was allegedly fraternizing with Elyse Tirrell, “Good Eats host Alton Brown was endorsing the PBS cooking show “The Frugal Gourmet,” whose host, Jeff Smith, paid an undisclosed sum to his victims of sexual assault. Brown stated simply, “I don’t care what he does or did in his personal life.” While Mario Batali came under fire for harassment allegations, female Food Network host Sunny Anderson, herself a victim of workplace harassment, shamed survivors of Harvey Weinstein on Twitter saying, “I blamed them and still do for not being BRAVE and reporting him before he had a chance to make one more victim.”

In a world that promotes highly gendered shows whose hosts themselves have publicly excused sexual harassment and assault, predators have managed to get away with inexcusable crimes. The networks amplified Flay’s and Batali’s reputations for being callous, macho and dominating. This attitude played a part in why these chefs felt empowered to expose a personal assistant to public shame and attach a recipe to a formal harassment apology letter.

To end food television’s rampant sexual misconduct, internal action must be taken to shatter the stark gender disparity and sexist lines that currently define food television. By ending the brash and aggressive cult of personality the networks use to shield their male hosts from scrutiny, justice can be achieved. External organizations like #MeToo cannot succeed in eradicating harassment and assault without networks completely revamping their misogynistic paradigms to prioritize safety and empowerment over profit.

Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at averycr@umich.edu.