Honoring the Great Matriarchs of the Kitchen


It’s Women’s History Month, and in this special edition of Weekly Bites we’re talking about the great matriarchs that have always inspired, and continue to inspire, the culinary industry.

Gender-based divisions of labor both inside the home and in the workforce have historically kept women away from restaurant kitchens. While the home kitchen may have been the domain of women, the culinary industry has historically been majority male. This mirrors a larger historical trend in society where only men were revered as artists, despite women’s continued contribution to the arts. For example, most of the great “masters” of the renaissance were male, while women were creating art and crafts within the home.

In the same way, men rose to prominence as chefs — culinary artists — despite the fact that women continued and evolved family culinary traditions from generation to generation.

As the division between home and work is blurring and there’s increased visibility into women’s contributions to all aspects of our society, many chefs today are realizing how much of an influence their grandmothers have had on their cooking.

Grandmothers, and their influence, are everywhere — on TikTok, restaurant names, cookbook memoirs, and even on restaurant menus themselves. Read on for three stories that talk about the grandma phenomenon!

Is grandma the newest TikTok influencer?

Scrolling through TikTok and Instagram Reels doesn’t have to be in conflict with learning from your elders. That’s because there’s a new type of rising-star influencer on social media — grandmothers. Specifically, grandmothers who cook.

These new influencer accounts — mostly set up by grandchildren — showcase their grandmothers doing what they love: cooking. It’s a kind of glimpse into how grandmothers cook, the “season until you feel it’s enough” or the “make the dough” instructions that have their grandchildren scratching their heads.

There’s no better way to learn how to cook like grandma than to watch her do it. And it seems that’s what people want, with grandmother accounts easily going viral. These videos are just as comforting and nostalgic as they are educational.

But who benefits from these wildly successful videos, given that social media success directly translates to money these days? A New York Times article rightfully critiques that, “Grandma content tends to flatten women out into an archetype: an industrious, uncomplaining source of hard-won knowledge, or a cute, benign, twinkly-eyed craftswoman.”

But is that the image grandmothers themselves want? And who ultimately benefits from their daily labor of cooking, especially when that labor has gone unnoticed and underappreciated for years?

One thing is for sure: The popularity of grandmother content on social media points to a desire to return to a style of cooking that is more traditional, instinctual, and ultimately — from the heart.

A grandmother’s name signals good food to come

Have you noticed lately how many restaurants are named after women? And how many of those restaurants are named specifically after the chef’s grandmother?

This trend started in 2019, but is still going strong today. It’s part of a general move away from stuffy fine dining and towards dining experiences that are homey, comfortable, and warm. After the past few years that the industry has had, it’s no wonder we’re craving comfort.

In an Eater article, restaurant marketing experts weighed in on what they think is driving this trend. “People today are looking for restaurants that are genuine and inviting as an answer to the divisiveness in our culture. A restaurant with a woman’s name sounds like an open-arms type of place,” muses Joseph Szala of Atlanta-based Vigor Branding.

Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, notes that, “A female name shows that a restaurant doesn’t have the Mario Batali attitude… A restaurant with a woman’s name conveys a kind of comfort and gaiety, a supportive, collaborative environment. Whereas a man’s name conveys… proprietorship.”

The marketing experts warn that it’s not enough to give your restaurant a woman’s name — it works best if you have a genuine story behind the name and if your hospitality style matches the warmth and comfort you’re hoping the name portrays.

A pop-up dedicated to an extraordinary Charlotte grandmother

In Charlotte, NC, one chef’s homage to her grandmother goes beyond just a name. Chef Lisa Brooks has been a private chef since 2010. Her fans ask her often if she’ll open up a restaurant, to which she says no.

While she’s not opening a restaurant any time soon, she’s been hosting a series of pop-ups called Mattie’s Front Porch, in honor of her grandmother — a great matriarch that her family refers to as Mother. So far, Mattie’s Front Porch has been hosted in AirBnBs, but Chef Brooks recently acquired a dedicated event space where she can expand her pop-up concepts without the commitment of a restaurant.

Mattie’s Front Porch is all about celebrating the spirit and joy of people coming together to eat — a joy that her grandmother facilitated for the family. Mattie worked as a domestic worker for some of Charlotte’s wealthiest families, where she cooked, cleaned, and provided childcare for barely a living wage. Then, she would return home to cook with love for her family.

In an Eater article, Chef Brooks reflects on cooking in some of the same neighborhoods her grandmother used to work in: “It’s not lost on me when I go into these same neighborhoods like Ballantyne, and I’m going in as a chef and preparing an amazing meal that’s still based on the things I learned from her. She sowed the food, and now I’m reaping the harvest. It makes me tear up a little thinking about that. I just know she’s shocked, overwhelmed, amazed, and proud.”

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