It’s unimaginable that a friendly competition would divide chefs by religion, race or ethnic background. But the gender war format is exceedingly popular in culinary circles: When Top Chef went to Texas, it pitted men against women in Restaurant Wars, and MasterChef Australia built an entire season around the conceit.
And next weekend, Taste of Charleston is basing its Iron Chef event around the “men vs. women” theme, following up on the gender allegiances which naturally rippled through the crowd at last year’s Charleston Wine + Food Festival when Michelle Weaver and Mike Lata met in the Waffle House Smackdown.
At Taste of Charleston, the showdown features Drew Hedlund (Fleet Landing) and Brandon Buck (Middleton Place) taking on Jael Allen (Mosaic) and Eva Broyles (Eli’s Table).
So what happens if the women win? Does a victory advance the cause of kitchen equality? Or does it reinforce the idea that men and women cook differently?
“I just feel like it’s sort of fair game,” Carolina’s chef Jill Mathias says. “If you’re good at your job, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”
As Mathias sees it, the best chefs will win – and the results won’t have any bearing on women’s status. Still, she understands why event organizers are fond of the “battle of the sexes” set-up.
“Now chefs are in the forefront, and you don’t see a lot of women,” Mathias says. “So people are interested. It’s probably one of the questions I get asked the most.”
(The answer to the question of how Mathias has fared in a male-dominated industry? “I’ve been fortunate to have people take me under their wing and want me to succeed.”)
Mathias has never participated in a flashy cooking competition – “I’m shy. And I’m always working,” she explains – but she believes there are subtle differences between male and female chefs.
“Sometimes flavor-wise, sometimes plating-wise, it’s a little more delicate,” she says. “Not always, but you can definitely sometimes see differences.”
Taste of Charleston’s Iron Chef is scheduled for next Saturday night.