I suppose we can thank Anthony Bourdain for the stereotype of the wild man chef. In Kitchen Confidential, his descriptions of “whacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees…and psychopaths” haphazardly gobbling substances and screwing on flour sacks between shifts made cooking in a restaurant kitchen seem like both the worst and best job imaginable. He romanticized the depraved hangover-to-hangover existence of a clock-punching turner-and-burner even as he cast his world in a hyper-realistic light, widely disseminating a broad colorful portrait of the journeyman chef, specifically a male one, that quickly congealed in the public mind. He popularized an archetype young chefs may even aspire to emulate — like fledgling rock singers copping Jagger’s pout and other well-traveled performance tropes.
In July 2009, Lev Grossman wrote of Bourdain in Time:
“It was invisible then. Now we recognize it right away: this is Anthony Bourdain’s world…He changed our whole cultural idea of what a kitchen is. Pre-Bourdain, it was a warm, cozy, maternal place. Now it’s a profane, brutal, masculine crucible, where human frailty is rendered away like so much tasty bacon fat.”
Of course, Kitchen Confidential didn’t tell chefs anything they didn’t already know. I also doubt the book would have been such a sensation had it not arrived at a time when cooking and eating were becoming popular fodder for entertainment on the Food Network, and chefs were more and more in the public eye. Today, celebrity chefs are brands — swollen, polished amplifications of the managerial personalities they cultivated actually manning kitchens. I’m not trying to write a college paper here, but I have noticed (as have many others) that nearly all of the high-profile celebrity chefs are men. While female Food Network hosts — like Rachael, Giada, and the newly minted Melissa— focus on saving time, shopping frugally, and feeding families — clear extensions of the domestic arena — male celebrity chefs focus on the craft itself, food for its own sake, cooking as an endless array of skills to acquire and adventures on which to embark in the carrying on of tradition and technique. They can approach food from an intellectual perspective. You learn about salumi. You study pizza. You get your education one cream-laden sauce at a time. You come of age in a French kitchen helmed by a venomous, insult-spewing maniac. You soak up abuse like a crostini, work awful hours, and get paid little to no money, but it’s what you expect — because you’re an apprentice. You have to be man enough to take it. Some day, you’ll be an executive chef yourself, and you’ll have your own cadre of serfs to kick around. Until then, you mince onions and practice cursing. While women obviously pass through similar rites of passage in kitchens all over the world, in the realm of food entertainment, they’re relegated to clipping coupons, dumbing down complicated dishes to satisfy some producer’s market-tested vision of the American housewife, and attracting no shortage of she-can’t-really-cook mockery from their male counterparts. Older female celebrity chefs — like Lidia Bastianich, for example — are motherly and comforting. They learned to cook from their mothers, and that’s what they’re sharing with you.
Everything on television is deliberately orchestrated, of course, but many of the common signifiers of male chefness — the cursing, the drinking, the fighting, the screaming, the preoccupation with large pieces of meat — whether expressed on camera, in memoirs, or reputation via third-person anecdotes — endow a traditionally feminine role with coarse, conventionally masculine trappings. Producers want men to feel safe watching their shows. They don’t want the women to appear shrill, unattractive, bossy, or otherwise threatening, or for the men in aprons to come off as effete. Over the course of six seasons of Bravo’s Top Chef, some of the show’s most reviled male contestants have been wheedling, effeminate men. Likewise, when Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef, did a tour of Spain for the Food Network way back in early 2000s, she was not tripping around, Bourdain-like, shit-faced on sherry, taking bullfighting lessons, making subtle references to gastrointestinal distress. Instead, cameras zoomed in again and again as she slowly lowered strips of fine jamon into her mouth, oohing and cooing, her face bathed in a soft, warm lamp-lit glow. In one segment, she rode a horse, in another, a donkey. She did go to a bullfight, which the bull managed to win against all odds. Relieved, Lakshmi repaired to a nearby restaurant, where she ate the balls of one of the victorious bull’s less fortunate comrades.
Men who have become famous cooking and eating in the public eye go out of their way to project a masculine image, and their carefully constructed personalities stud every crevice of the machismo spectrum. Ginger-coiffed Bobby Flay, proprietor of what Grub Street deems the 13th largest chef empire, is a wise-talking Jersey dude. He’s richer than an oil tycoon but he has real friends. How do you know? They come over to his modest-seeming house for sausage party cook-outs. Sometimes, when he’s smirking his way through a Throwdown episode, he looks like guys I’ve seen at bars late at night, red-faced, a little sweaty, leering at ladies between shots of Patron. 8th on Grub Street’s list, Mario Batali, corpulent, jolly, and orange-clogged, is renowned for Falstaffian excesses. With his Tourettic interjecting of idiotic catch phrases, Emeril Lagasse, locked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa for #5 through #7, strikes me as a man who always speaks louder than he has to. With his Stray Cats-meets-Swingers-in-the-back-of-a-Sunglass Hut shtick, Guy Fieri apparently wowed audience members at this year’s Great American Food and Music Festival in Mountain View with what Bay Area Bites contributor Stephanie Im called a “highly entertaining blowout performance complete with loud rock n’roll, gratuitous hot chicks on stage, big machinery, power tools, and pyrotechnics.” The owner of 27 restaurants around the world, Gordon Ramsey has bounced over some financial ruts lately, but Grub Street still has him in the #1 slot. His shows are crude spectacles of theater Artaud, would find unwatchable. Ramsey berates chefs, spits food on the floor, and picks fights. Off-screen, he’s compulsively disrespectful, particularly towards women. Bourdain? Well, he doesn’t actually cook much anymore, but he drinks a lot on No Reservations and makes a point of eating anything put in front of him, regardless of how strange or off-putting it may be. When he’s not going shooting with Ted Nugent, he’s a culturally sensitive daredevil — an Evel Knievel of antacid-defying degustation. I can eat this gigantic sandwich, these bulbous eyeballs, and this disgusting warthog anus, he seems to say — could you? When he and Eric Ripert venture back into the Les Halles kitchen to char beef and sauce sole for Season Four’s “Into the Fire” episode, they’re in the war zone, brothers sloshing through the trenches, dunking freedom fries in spitting oil and hustling out steak au poivre as the foes — the diners — descend in overwhelming numbers. Interestingly, Jamie Oliver, who on several occasions has been the target of Bourdain’s bullying, was the subject of a 2003 academic article published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies: “Oliver’s Twist: Leisure, Labor, and Domestic Masculinity in The Naked Chef”. The writer, Joanne Hollows of Nottingham Trent University in England, frames Oliver as a construction of the masculine domestic cook. According to Hollows, in his professional capacity, Oliver avoids associating cooking with labor; instead, it’s a fun, leisurely, and “recognizably manly” activity.
You’ll never see a man on a cooking show gasping and groaning over the way something tastes — over-sensualizing their pleasure from food. “Oh that’s serious,” Bourdain will say, wiping some beastly innards off his face, taking a swig of Heineken. Emeril and Fieri will bark as if they’re at a ball game. Batali will explain why something is good, rather than simply express how happy he is to eat it. Some kinds of cooking — grilling, artisanal curing, brawny offal-centric preparations — tend to have hyper-masculine devotees. Molecular gastronomy — food science, art, and fantasy in a delicious jumble — is safe too — because it’s so dramatically removed from the drudgery of home-cooking. Every now and then, you see a gentle man cooking on television, and the effect is jarring. In March, celebrated Manresa chef David Kinch schooled Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. Even though his restaurant is a destination, the soft-spoken and terroir-enthused Kinch will never have product tie-ins — commercial mayonnaise, kitchen gear, spice rubs, etc — on Flay’s level — even in the unlikely event he wanted to in the first place. He’d rather build “tide-pools” of fresh shellfish and sea beans languishing in dashi-laced green tomato broth and go surfing in his spare time. One of my favorite cooking shows was Charlie Trotter‘s original Kitchen Sessions on PBS in the late 1990s. Amid a loose jazz soundtrack, Trotter very softly presented his thesis: cooking is a cycle of improvisations where time-tested techniques meet endlessly changing circumstances and opportunities for adjustment. The food was high-concept, challenging but within reach. As a host, he was a soothing presence — murmuring vaguely poetic asides, often looking away from the camera, frequently indulging in tangential digressions appropriate to his show’s statement of purpose. Trotter has been very successful, but his show, at least in that incarnation, didn’t last more than a year or two. Ironically, Trotter actually made a cameo in the 1997 movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which he convincingly played the stereotype of a blustery chef, bellowing at an assistant: “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right!” It’s a better joke now, twelve years later.