Alexandria Digital Research Library

Inequalities on the menu : how private and personal chefs negotiate tensions about status and self

Hendley, Alexandra Olympia
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Sociology
Degree Supervisor:
Maria Charles
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Sociology, Social Structure and Development and Gender Studies
Career change
Boundary work
Reproductive labor
Dissertations, Academic and Online resources
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014

This dissertation examines how private and personal chefs manage tensions about their identity and status. It draws primarily on interviews with private and personal chefs in California, along with a nationwide survey of personal chefs. Both types of chefs work in and for private households, though typically private chefs are employed by one household while personal chefs are self-employed and offer a range of services (e.g. prepared meals, dinner parties, cooking classes). These chefs are emblematic of several recent changes in American work and culture, and they are also very ambiguously positioned with regards to both their societal and intraprofessional status. Located somewhere between chefs (looked highly upon today) and domestic workers, private/personal chefs could be seen as artists or as menial and subordinate laborers. Moreover, most of these chefs are white and/or native born, middle-class, and highly educated, while domestic workers are usually foreign-born women of color.

In order to respond to these tensions, the chefs draw symbolic boundaries (i.e. engage in "boundary work"), asserting their worth and declaring who they are and are not. Some of the chefs' boundary work challenges existing hierarchies and inequalities. They distinguish themselves from restaurant chefs, for instance, and contest the culinary profession's typical status hierarchy. They also criticize clients who act as if they are entitled to the chefs' services. More commonly, their boundary work reinforces societal and occupational hierarchies. Beliefs about the worth of individuals based on their gender, race, or class often underlie their distinctions. By distancing themselves from home cooks and domestic servants, for example, they reinforce the devaluation of household reproductive labor and those who typically perform it. Some chefs also express a preference for clients with "good" taste, legitimating class-based cultural distinctions.

Tensions between selves, or between the material and "moral" spheres of life, contributed to many participants' decisions to pursue private/personal cheffing. Engaging in what I call "self-directed boundary work", they recognized a discrepancy between who they were prior to the career move and their "true" or hoped-for self. Most of my participants are satisfied with the change; they have taken a stand against overly demanding, inflexible, and/or personally meaningless work. However, not everyone has the opportunity or resources to engage in this kind of self-change. Furthermore, because social forces shape (and limit) our ideas about who we are, making decisions based on these self-conceptions has the potential to reproduce social inequalities.

With regards to the work itself, private and personal cheffing seem to open doors for some individuals (i.e. women, parents, older adults) who might not otherwise enter or stay in the culinary profession. However, chefs may face discriminatory hiring practices in private employment, and ultimately, these fields may actually contribute to the (re)production of gender segregation within the culinary profession. Women outnumber men as personal chefs, a field with relatively low status and earnings (though this varies), while many of the men in my study seemed to treat private/personal cheffing as a springboard towards work with higher pay, status, and visibility.

This dissertation clearly illustrates our ambivalence towards care(work). Household reproductive labor continues to be devalued. Yet, a need to care for oneself and others motivated changes in career paths, and caring for others was a widely shared source of satisfaction with the work. This study points to the need to start treating care as a social responsibility -- the need to start tearing down boundaries rather than drawing them.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (282 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Alexandra Hendley
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