The Gender Politics of the “Sexy Chef” in Romance Literature

After finishing my master’s degree in Gastronomy in July 2013, I gave myself an academic reading palate cleanser.1 I devoured dozens of romance novels that summer before I began my PhD. Some were good: saucy and satisfying. Others were less good: dull and uninspired, though still relatively enjoyable, like the breadsticks at Olive Garden. One such romance was nevertheless “good to think with.”2 Igniting the food studies brain I’d attempted to rest, Kate Perry’s All for You employed food as an apt literary device for communicating the stories and feelings of romance and sex.3 This novelette also illustrated the ongoing gender politics of the professional food world, as it revealed who can play the part of a “sexy chef” and who still can’t. Pondering sexy chefs offered a new way for me to answer the very tired question: “Why are there no great women chefs?”

(Courtesy Goodreads)

In All for You, Anna Goodwin is a young, aspiring lawyer who finds herself dissatisfied. She yearns for Max Corazao, a chef whom she dated throughout law school. The two had parted ways because of their competing life priorities and irreconcilable work schedules, not uncommon challenges when dating a chef. The story opens with Anna on a blind date at a restaurant. She departs abruptly when she realizes the man across from her is “white bread,” and that’s not what she wants. She prefers Max, who is appropriately and desirably “spicy.” Such food-inspired descriptions establish Max’s appeal in stark contrast to the blandness of other men, but they also work to exoticize him, making a stereotypical reference to what Perry calls his “Latin” heritage. Furthermore, Max is the head chef at Spark, described as “the it restaurant this season” and fittingly named given the sparks flying between Anna and Max.

By casting Max as a chef, Perry tapped into the popular mania for celebrity chefs. Once a blue collar and relatively uncelebrated job, the chef increasingly transformed over the 1990s and 2000s into a more respected and celebritized career.4 Especially as they cooked on television, chefs were portrayed as part of the creative class, considered and treated more like rock stars than staff. Perry models Max after such chefs, whom food media routinely profile as innovative, admirable, and all-too-often masculine by default. In All for You, Max has such “charisma and star quality” that a New York restaurant group believes he could be “the next Wolfgang Puck.” Perry also describes Max as masculine, desirable, and strong in “dark pants and a pristine white chef’s coat, the sleeves rolled up.” Max “looked capable and in charge. Hot.”

All for You was published in 2013, which can feel a world away from today’s food media trends. Food media from the 2000s and early 2010s actively reinforced the notion of male celebrity chefs as sexually virile, inside and outside of the kitchen. For example, Curtis Stone’s Take Home Chef on TLC aired from 2005-2008, shot in a reality TV style. It operated on the premise that unsuspecting women shopping in the grocery store could take the handsome chef home — not actually for sex, but for help cooking a meal with a side of heavy flirting. In the New York Post in 2010, Carla Spartos’ piece “NYC’s Tasty Dish!” oozed with double entendre. It didn’t just profile the restaurant Ça Va,5 but chef Todd English himself as a “lady-killer” with “a chiseled jawline” who had left his fiancé at the altar the year before. Just as Perry describes Max in All for You as “delicious” with a “spicy chocolate voice,” Spartos writes, “by turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, [Todd English is] the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.”

On his many Food Network TV shows, Bobby Flay is presented as a boy-next-door type of sexy chef. He offers grilling tips on the coquettishly named Boy Meets Grill, while on Worst Cooks in America or Throwdown with Bobby Flay, many show contestants swoon over Flay before they settle down to the requisite culinary challenge. Furthermore, in 2011 on HBO’s bro-tastic Entourage, Flay played himself, dating character Ari Gold’s wife. Ari is wounded by his wife’s relationship with Flay, not just because she cheats on him, but because Flay represents the epitome of masculine hotness as a celebrity chef. Perry fashions Max as a composite character who embodies both the gastronomic prowess and sex appeal of such culinary stars.

The presumed sexualized, masculine power of chefs also translates to literal sex. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, didn’t just reveal “the culinary underbelly,” it made it adventurous and provocatively alluring. In the chapter, “Food Is Sex,” Bourdain writes of his time as an aimless teenage dishwasher at the Dreadnaught, where the “the cooks ruled” as “master criminals, sexual athletes … highwaymen rogues, buccaneers, cut-throats.”6 Bourdain claimed he knew he wanted to be a chef when the restaurant fed a wedding party. His culinary enthusiasm was not due to the thrill of the kitchen but its antics. The chef had sex with the bride at her request, just outside the restaurant near the garbage bins “…while her new groom and family chewed happily on their flounder filets and deep-fried scallops just a few yards away.” Bourdain’s later writing and reporting created far more nuanced accounts of food. Nevertheless, his early bursts of literary fame marked the celebrity chef as not just male and masculine, but as macho, sexy, and having sex, which All for You drafts into romantic fantasy.

In All for You, Max and Anna use zabaglione, a fruit and custard sauce dessert, in their trysts. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Like Bourdain’s chef bending a bride over a barrel, Anna and Max similarly get together in Spark’s back office. As is a hallmark of romance novels, Perry pens creative but cringeworthy descriptions of lovemaking. Given the book’s food theme, it’s no surprise that Max is “lapping, licking, nibbling, and noshing” Anna or that Anna licks Max “like he was an ice cream cone.” On multiple occasions, they eat zabaglione and “homemade strawberry and basil ice cream” off of one another’s bodies.

While Max may fulfill certain readers’ manly fantasies, his character also sometimes breaks with the macho chef stereotype. For example, a restaurant group wants to fully fund his restaurant in part because “he inspires loyalty in his employees, which is unheard of in the restaurant business.” We’re led to believe that this loyalty might be the result of a respectful and supportive work environment, which the #MeToo movement has revealed to be too often a rarity in kitchens run by men, but often a priority for women-owned restaurants.

And yet, if Anna had been cast as the chef in All for You, this pint-sized romance novel might have played out differently. Sure, Anna and Max would still fall in love and live happily ever after eating ice cream off one another’s flesh. But in the typical American imagination, “chef” still conjures an image of a (usually white) man in a white coat, who masters flame and beast as he crafts culinary creations that entice, amaze, and satisfy. The assumed gendering of chef as masculine remains culturally entrenched, even as women have made great strides in the professional food world. In 2017, women’s enrollment at the Culinary Institute of America surpassed men’s, reaching 51.6 percent for the first time. Despite women’s more than equitable achievement in culinary education, women held a mere 21 percent of head chef positions that year and were hugely underrepresented among culinary award winners. When women chefs are profiled and praised, food media often paints them with a brush of gender essentialism. Women chefs are maternal, nurturing, and traditional, constantly diminutive to male chefs, who are depicted as risk-taking, empire-building, and sometimes, sexy.

Can a woman be a sexy chef? In All for You, the role of female chef would connote sexiness inconsistently. Female celebrity chefs, such as Giada De Laurentiis or Nigella Lawson, are often portrayed as sexy women who happen to cook, but not as sexy chefs unto themselves. Even outside of heteronormative strictures, the female chef remains a baller or a ballbuster. Her culinary prowess is not characterized as the source of her hotness, as it is for Max or Bobby Flay. The sexual allure of chefs — especially as represented in food media and in All for You — remains linked to masculinity, its related values of strength and virility, and its patriarchal position of dominance. Such dynamics of power might feed some of our fantasies within the pages of romance novels, but we can hope (and fight) for more in our lives.

Notes

  1. Not to be confused with astronomy or gastroenterology, which happens a lot. Return to text.
  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Return to text.
  3. Not to be confused with pop music star Katy Perry, though that would be awesome, wouldn’t it? Return to text.
  4. Signe Rousseau, Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, London: Berg, 2012; Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre, Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Ça Va closed in summer 2016. Return to text.
  6. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Updated Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 21–22. Return to text.

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