Boys at home in the kitchen
Maranda Scherer, 9, of West Mifflin, and Drake Lemasters, 5, of Lincoln Place, take part in the gingerbread house class at Rania's Catering in Mt. Lebanon. Increasing numbers of boys are interested in cooking and baking.
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About a month ago, a group of boys in Carrie Hackett's second-grade class were out on the playground discussing -- of all things -- Easy-Bake Ovens.
They were mad that there weren't any ovens for boys.
"I told them there's a blue-and-white one but they said, 'No, there's a girl on the box.'"
Too bad, because the boys in Mrs. Hackett's class at St. Margaret of Scotland school in Green Tree love watching Duff Goldman as he and his team perform astonishing feats of pastry on The Food Network's "Ace of Cakes."
And representatives for cooking reality shows including "Top Chef" on the Bravo network and "Cake Boss" on TLC said their stars are mobbed by youngsters at public appearances -- and more often than not, those kids are boys.
"Look at the 'Ace of Cakes,' " said Cait Poynor, an assistant professor of marketing in the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.
Regular-guy role models make such shows more kid-friendly, she noted.
"Using those big guys as spokespeople, it's like having a dad who cooks a lot, and that's OK."
With such a growing young demographic, toy makers might be expected to jump at the chance to market food-related toys for boys. But with few exceptions, it's still all about thinking pink.
Hasbro manufactures the iconic tabletop Easy-Bake Oven -- who hasn't enjoyed cookies baked by the glow of a 100-watt light bulb? -- but has no plans to market a "boys" version. There's a hot-pink oven, and a white version with aqua trim. Both models feature girls on the packaging.
The Hasbro Web site for Easy-Bake Oven notes "The classic light bulb oven still delights with a girl's first real baking experience!"
It's somewhat of a paradox: The culinary world is dominated by men, yet cooking and baking "are for girls." But this might be changing on both fronts.
"To me, it's completely infuriating that all of these 'women's crafts' are professionalized by men. It's so wrong!" said Kathy M. Newman, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University whose classes have included the literature of gender studies and pop culture.
It's hard to find a gender-neutral toy kitchen. Fisher-Price offers a "Play My Way" plastic setup that is mostly yellow with primary color accents. But its ads all show little girls using it.
On its Web site, even a basic kitchen from Fisher-Price shows a cute lassie and the script "Visit our other girls sites!" beneath the photo. An elaborate Pottery Barn Kids kitchen is dominated by pale pink walls.
Mr. Goldman had Easy-Bake Ovens when he was a kid. So did Rick Bayless, recent winner of "Top Chef: Masters" and chef and co-owner of Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
"When I was a little kid I always liked to make things. I was the 'crafts' kid. I was always baking stuff," Mr. Bayless said.
His family was in the food industry, so the request for an oven -- albeit a "girls toy" -- was no big deal. But his joy was short-lived -- after burning his younger sister's hand on it, he recalled, his mother shelved the toy. Now at his Chicago restaurants, he's happy to meet the occasional diner back in the kitchen, and usually that diner is male, between the ages of 10 and 16, Mr. Bayless said.
"It's not at all uncommon for the front-house people to say 'We have this 10-year-old and he's come here for his birthday. It's his wish to meet you.' "
Toy manufacturer JAKKS Pacific teamed with Mr. Goldman to help develop its "Girl Gourmet" line of Cake Bakery products.
"It's basically taking the Easy-Bake into the modern century," he said.
A tiny two-tiered cake can be microwaved, then decorated with rolled fondant and an air-powered frosting gun. "It's really cute and a really cool toy," Mr. Goldman said.
He asked the company if it might market the baking sets to both boys and girls -- the packaging is still very pink, although his picture is on the box.
"They said if they have to market to boys and girls, it wouldn't do nearly as well."
Mr. Goldman said he understands the company's position but still believes a lot of boys will ask their parents to buy it. "If I was in this age group, I'd get my parents to buy it for me," he said.
Despite an apparent consumer niche, it's not yet time to market the Easy-Bake Oven in different gender-based versions, said Gary Serby, Hasbro vice president for corporate communications.
"As a mass marketer and manufacturer, good business dictates that we carefully manage our marketing expenditures, and in the case of the Easy-Bake Oven, this translates into concentrating our primary efforts on girls.
"Having said that, however, the play pattern clearly appeals to boys as well."
Hasbro wants to play it safe, said Pitt's Dr. Poynor.
"Particularly with Easy-Bake because it's such a dominant force in the market," she said. "They risk losing the girls and picking up just a few boys."
The history of televised cooking shows includes men and women -- Julia Child, Chef Tell, Graham Kerr and locally, Kay Neumann -- all cited as inspiration by current chefs.
Today's "reality" food programming is more male-centric. Besides "Ace of Cakes," which shows a young, hip group of artists scrambling to put together wild creations and fronted by Mr. Goldman, there's "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro. Most often, the finalists on "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef" are male.
Then there are Anthony Bourdain (Travel Channel), Alton Brown (Food Network) and Bobby Flay (Food Network), larger-than-life figures, some of whom chow down on unusual fare. Compare them to more down-home hosts such as Paula Deen (Food Network) and Rachael Ray (syndicated).
"We have cops who watch our show, we have guys in the military, people who watch football, people who watch NASCAR," Mr. Goldman said. "I think in some ways that's why kids really can relate to it ... they see us as adults just hanging out, like we're a big gang of kids."
Gregory Panscino, of North Strabane, is 12 and wants to be a chef when he grows up, or maybe a writer or an architect. He loves to cook and after becoming a fan of "Ace of Cakes" and "Good Eats," he asked his parents if he could begin taking lessons at the Young Chefs Academy in Peters.
"At Thanksgiving he helped me make some of the vegetables," said his mother, Beth. "My Gregory, he's mathematical, a very scientific person. Maybe he's channeling that into cooking."
Gregory said he wasn't surprised to find a large number of boys in the Young Chefs classroom. "Not really. In this day and age, a lot of people like a lot of different things."
More men than women now are enrolled in classes at Crate, the specialty cooking store in Scott operated by Linda Wernikoff for 31 years.
"There's no doubt the Food Network has been really good exposure," she said. "Kids needed that sort of stimulation and if it takes a Bobby Flay or Mario Batali to say it isn't that hard [for boys to get involved], then fine."
Mt. Lebanon's Rania Harris has a restaurant/catering/cooking class operation that has seen male participation increase in recent years.
"A lot of little boys are coming through the doors," she said.
She's done televised shows, where the live audience included "many little boys who came up to me, wanting my autograph."
Mike Rainforth, director of education for Pennsylvania Culinary Institute's school in Pittsburgh, said figures for enrollment by gender had remained somewhat static since 2005, when 75 percent of its culinary program was male. Last year, however, female enrollment climbed slightly, to 29 percent.
"Historically, the role of chef has always been a man's role," Mr. Rainforth said.
At The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, there were 60 male and 50 female students last year; there are 73 male and 63 female students now.
Jean-Marc Chatellier trained as a pastry chef in his native France, where the culinary arts, he said, remain a male domain at all ages. He has operated his eponymous French Bakery in Millvale since 1991, and during this time, "99 percent" of his student interns have been women. "It's something in America that the pastry chef has to be a woman. In Europe, it's completely different," he said.
Indeed, Mr. Rainforth said that enrollment in his school's pastry division is about 90 percent female.
Ms. Newman, the Carnegie Mellon professor, said that as a parent, she believes there is much work to be done before her son Jacob, 5, and daughter Casey, 21/2, have an equal chance of growing up to be chefs or restaurant owners.
"There is still so much sexism, marketing chef toys to boys isn't going to solve the problem of gender discrimination in the food industry," she said.
"I think parents are always looking for gender-neutral toys, but it's surprising the market hasn't caught up to parents."
First Published December 13, 2009 12:00 am