I taught young women and men destined for culinary careers for more than 15 years. I was passionate about food theory and was frequently assigned this curriculum. In an introductory course, two of a total 28 hours was assigned to culinary history. It’s a paltry allotment and the squeeze forced me to leap and careen through our culinary evolution.
My passion for the subject led me to study independently. I soon realized that some of what I was passing on was seriously impaired by its western orientation. Through Susan Pinkard’s, A Revolution in Taste, I came to understand that Catherine de Medici’s role in the evolution of haute cuisine was overstated. Pinkard calls it “one of the evergreen myths of culinary history.” The fork did not spring from Catherine’s hand nor was it evidence of Italian superiority at the table. Rather, it points to the trading ties Italy had forged with the east. The fork came from Byzantium. Other culinary innovations, such as ices and sorbets, came from Persia. Catherine de Medici was a carrier between the east and west.
I loved seeing this truth light up in the faces of my students of Turkish and Persian descent. For me, it was a minor lesson in the benefits of inclusion. A realization began to take shape in me that our culinary culture could benefit from more truth seeking and telling.
I usually inventoried for my students the chefs who made vital contributions to our evolution — Apicius, Careme, Escoffier, Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse. I was French trained and had inherited an immense respect for a few of these figures. But I was mostly asleep, repeating by rote the things that I had been taught and deemed to be true. The exclusivity of this version of our history was slow to dawn on me.
That changed in my early 40's when I discovered chef Eugenie Brazier, a woman whose achievements eclipsed that of Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse, and whose absence from our history demonstrated our perverse cultural bias to celebrate only the accomplishments of white, European males.
How is it possible that a woman we’ve never heard of could outshine the likes of Paul Bocuse? Using the French measuring stick of Michelin authority it is on record that Eugenie Brazier was the first chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1933 and the first chef to hold six stars, three stars for each of her restaurants in Lyon and col de la Luère. That later achievement remained unchallenged until chef Alain Ducasse exceeded it with nine Michelin stars in 2005. Paul Bocuse has never held six Michelin stars, nor has Fernand Point. In this regard, chef Brazier’s achievement lands her in the rare company of chefs like Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. In his forward to the book, La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking, Paul Bocuse writes that Eugenie Brazier “remains one of the pillars of global gastronomy” who “taught all of us about flavors and gave us a taste for hard work and work well done. There would have been no success for any of us without her; something we often forget these days.”
But Paul Bocuse also provides a good example of just how this kind of forgetting happens. His attitude toward women in professional kitchens is no secret. We shrug off as French idiosyncrasy the fact that he refuses to employ women in his kitchen. (Ironic, given that his namesake school in Lyon benefits immensely from the tuition contributions of many female culinary students.)
In the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN program, Parts Unknown, Mr. Bocuse bares his unseemly bias when speaking of his first mentor. Early in the episode, tribute is paid to Brazier but when Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Boulud are in Mr. Bocuse’s presence at his restaurant, she is dealt a fatal blow. When asked what he remembered about her Mr. Bocuse’s only comment is about her temper. Nothing about the early skills she imparted, about a cuisine that won the highest level of gastronomic approval, or of her Michelin achievements. Anthony Bourdain closes the subject by characterizing her as a “truly terrifying figure.” Three esteemed male chefs feasting on the remains of an incredibly talented woman. How I wish that scene had been left on the editing room floor.
How is it that Paul Bocuse is celebrated for a cuisine that hasn’t evolved in more than forty years while nothing is said of Brazier’s cooking? Are we to believe that Bocuse never raised his voice or pushed an apprentice hard? Are we to assume that what happened in chef Brazier’s kitchen has never happened in a Michelin three star kitchen? I worked in a Michelin two-star kitchen for a French man and on most nights I could see his tonsils clear across the kitchen from the pass.
When does it stop being okay to degrade an esteemed contribution because a woman makes it?
In the compressed culinary history I delivered, Catherine de Medici was the only woman of significance clear through to the 1970s when Alice Waters and Julia Child came along. Eugenie Brazier was not there. Worse still is the fact that we don’t see our culinary history as diminished by her omission.
What is the danger in celebrating chef Brazier? If we can so easily paint such an accomplished woman out of our history who else might be missing? What of the great American chef Edna Lewis? What of the long line of Bise women, beginning with Marguerite, whose cooking has achieved Michelin acclaim at the Auberge du Père Bise? Are we afraid that given this knowledge, young women might build more ambitious professional lives for themselves?
The real lesson I was inadvertently imparting to the young women and men who sat in my classes, carrying all the enthusiasm of a brand new career, was that women did not contribute significantly to culinary history. I’m humbled by the fact that, charged with advancing the minds of a young generation, I accepted this biased view and passed it on, unquestioned. But I’m buoyed by the fact that my own curiosity and desire to teach better led me to a much richer understanding.
I want young women and men to know that this canned version of culinary history is a half-truth. It is a fictionalized account not worth learning. Brazier’s accomplishments challenge the idea that white European males have done most of what is important or distinctive in culinary culture. As Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse demonstrated, the achievement of white, European males rests mainly in their ability to muscle a particular version of events into the books. It’s well past the time for an inclusive history to be written. Let’s begin with the message that we deliver to our young.
 Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. (Massachusetts: Wellesley College, 1988)
 Susan Pinkard. A Revolution in Taste. The Rise of French Cuisine. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 30
 Drew Smith trans. La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking. (New York: Rizzoli, 2014) pp. 6 — 7
 Lyon. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season Three. Episode Three. Sunday April 27, 2014.