IS IT JUST us, or is the kitchen becoming an increasingly horny place to be? I don’t mean this personally (my own kitchen is a place for stress cooking and deranged snacking, thank you very much), but rather broadly. Since Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy walked onto our screens in The Bear last year, everyone’s got the hots for chef. In fact, people are talking about hot chefs all over the place.
On social media, cunning influencers are tapping into the hot chef renaissance with glee. I’m surely not the only one who has found thirst-trapping chefs lurking in the depths of my ‘For You’ page—but more on that later. The fascinating thing, really, is the distinctly masculine angle of it all. It was once claimed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, but ‘hot chef summer’ seems to imply that it’s men we’re looking for in that hallowed culinary space—and we expect them to play the part.
There is a longstanding relationship between food and sex. Perhaps it begins with the theories that our closest living evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, used food as a trading tactic, with male chimps offering the meat they hunted to female chimps in the hope of mating with them. This is deftly titled the “meat-for-sex” hypothesis (and to this day, it appears that some men still believe in it).
There are aphrodisiacs, of course—foods like oysters and chocolate, asparagus and chillies, which are said to increase arousal and get you “in the mood”. The truth, however, is that no foods have actually been scientifically proven to stimulate the human sex organs; they’re more about stimulating the ‘love senses’ of sight, smell, touch and taste. Personally, I still don’t understand how a blob of sea snot stimulates any of those in a pleasurable way, or how asparagus pee is particularly sexy, but to each their own!
Even the ways we talk about food can be rather sexual—we talk about moist cakes and tender meats, satisfying flavours and morsels with a great mouthfeel. We see a particularly good-looking meal served up to us and call it food porn! So it’s natural, then, that we can’t help but sexualise food, and the creation of it in particular: The way that dexterous hands might flex seductively as they knead supple dough; or conversely, delicately cradle an egg yolk in their palm as they separate it from its glistening, dripping white. Food is evocative, and writing about it demands a certain passion, a romance.
But as food has, for so long, been considered a woman’s business, it’s women who have faced the brunt of sexualisation in relation to their ‘place’ in the kitchen. The cookbooks of yore did not merely feature recipes with indulgently long and highly tangential introductions, but rather paired their culinary advice with that of the marital and sexual variety—so closely related did they see the intersection of cooking with pleasuring. American food critic Mimi Sheraton posited in The Seducer’s Cookbook that a woman could (and should) use her skills in the kitchen to lure a man to the bedroom: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” goes the old adage.
If there is a poster girl for these attitudes towards women in the kitchen, surely it must be Nigella Lawson, the unwillingly titled: “queen of food porn”. The English food writer and TV personality leapt to fame in the ’90s, and while her culinary skills are impressive enough, it was her appearance and presenting manner that truly won over her legions of fans. The intentionally tongue-in-cheek title of her book, How To Be a Domestic Goddess, flew right over people’s heads, with everyone assuming she was just presenting herself as the Platonic ideal of domestic kitchen brilliance. Her ironic, witty demeanour on TV has been pointedly described as “coquettish,” even though Lawson has insisted on more than one occasion that she’s no flirt: “I don’t have the talent to adopt a different persona. It’s intimate, not flirtatious,” she once told Metro. “Appetite is seen as hearty in a male and slightly wanton and lascivious in a female,” she told the Times.
People somehow missed that she, Lawson, was not merely a cook or a coquette, but a sort of heavily ironic comedian, riffing on the stereotypes of women in the kitchen to great effect. But that subtlety and her protests were drowned out, of course. “Middle-aged, middle-class men love Nigella—so posh, so motherly, so wifely, so sluttish all in the one package,” The Guardian‘s Simon Hattenstone boldly wrote in 2002, perfectly summarising the patriarchal expectation to have one’s cake and eat it too when it comes to women.
Fast forward to today, and the new face of the kitchen sexualisation is no longer a woman, but rather The Bear‘s leading man, Carmy. In the critically acclaimed, culturally adored TV series, Jeremy Allen White (and Jeremy Allen White’s biceps) are working overtime as the highly-strung protagonist to make the incredibly stressful world of the professional kitchen one that seems steamy with sexual tension, rather than the sheer chaos of cooking. When the show debuted in 2022, it inspired thousands of thirst Tweets the world over (even though, may we note, it didn’t contain even a whiff of romance or sex). When it returned earlier this year for its second season, the thirst was resurrected in force (especially when photos of the hot chef himself going for a very sweaty run emerged mere weeks ago). A freshly glowed-up Will Poulter was added to the kitchen lineup this season too (my compliments to the chef—ahem, the casting director), inspiring even further thirst.
But White isn’t the only hot chef we’re lusting over right now.
A recent article from The Cut introduced us to ‘The Thirst Trap Chefs of Instagram and TikTok,’ and if you haven’t yet made their acquaintance yet, oh boy! These thirst trap chefs in question are a series of men who, in the past handful of years, have learned the sexual power that kitchen competence seems to hold. First came Cedrik Lorenzen, a Switzerland-based, self-trained chef with 4.2 million followers to his name on TikTok alone. Since he started posting his smutty little food videos back in 2020, he’s inspired a number of devotees, like Australia’s own Anthony Randello Jahn, who goes by ‘The Donut Daddy‘. “Here to make you thirsty,” Lorenzen’s account teases. “I know what you knead,” Jahn’s flirts.
Their videos are… a lot, to say the least. On a technical level, they are simply videos of men making food. On a more honest level, they are videos of rather attractive men making sensual food, in muscle-hugging tees (or no tees at all), with innuendo that drips thickly off the feed like honey. There is something that feels incredibly wrong about sitting in your office, watching a man spank a ball of dough, or lick his lips seductively after pouring a can of condensed milk so slowly that it trickles over his fingers (I felt the irrepressible urge to hide my phone while watching such videos as I write this). They are videos that are either cringe or blush-inducing, depending on your personal taste.
In recent years, we have also thirsted over chef Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), whose chiselled good looks are perhaps the sole bright spot of the extended faux-pas that is Emily in Paris. Out of the fictional world, there are real-world chefs like Rōze Traore (who doubles as a model), or Queer Eye‘s resident foodie Antoni Porowski. In 2021, we realised a new lust for Stanley Tucci as the actor entered his food era: He released a book, Taste, and a TV series, Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy, in which he travels across Italy, being his charming, food-adoring self. It inspired something of a Tucci-aissance (this is the word I am giving the renewed appreciation for the 62-year-old actor). “Watching Stanley Tucci eat fresh Mozzarella and pizza and coffee in Naples is total bonertown,” one Twitter user eloquently explained.
“[Tucci] strolls the narrow thoroughfares of Florence and Naples with the physical eloquence of a dancer, at once smouldering and restrained,” a New Yorker article indulges. “He gazes at wheels of cheese and swirls of pasta as if the food must be seduced before it will consent to be devoured.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that the hot chef is not a new phenomenon, and one need only cast their mind back to the heyday of Marco Pierre White in the early ’90s to remember that. “A Hollywood-handsome rock star in a chef’s apron, his bolshy swagger brought him legions of fans, as did his wavy mop of brown hair, sporty trainers and ability to bring insouciant cool to simple kitchen whites,” Esquire UK‘s Carmen Bellot wrote. Anthony Bourdain was another of the original bad boys of the kitchen, and Jamie Oliver certainly offered a symbolic wink to his mostly-female audience when he adopted the moniker “the naked chef” in his early days. On the big screen, too, there was the 1987 Cher-fronted Moonstruck, which saw Nicolas Cage don a torso-clinging white tank top as a tough-but-romantic, one-handed baker. And in 1991, Al Pacino sported chef whites in the rom-com Frankie and Johnny to equally lusty appeal.
The pre-existence of hot chefs is why this is dubbed a renaissance, not just a naissance. There have been hot chefs before, and there will be hot chefs again, even after Jeremy Allen White’s biceps no longer swell to the sizes of the beef sandwiches he so passionately slings.
But what is it that keeps bringing them back to the fore, and why are they all men—especially when, for so long, we were told that the kitchen was a place for women? For some reason, people keep insisting that “there’s nothing sexier than a man who can cook,” as though the ability to produce a bowl of pasta is some Herculean feat (the bar is on the floor!).
Somewhere in the late twentieth century, cooking went from being a woman’s chore to a man’s playground, and play is certainly central to the appeal of the hot chef. As academic Irina D. Mihalache writes, “the process of making cooking ‘safe’ for men included the emphasis on play and experimentation as the main difference between masculine cooking and domestic suburban cooking. While women cooked out of necessity, the new man of the 1960s cooked out of pleasure.”
I wouldn’t say that cooking seems pleasurable for an eternally stressed character like Carmy, but pleasure is certainly central to our thirst-trapping social media chefs, who relish in the challenge of making even the least sexy foods somehow incredibly erotic (not even capsicums or peas are safe, I’m afraid to report, and there’s no hope at all for fruits of any sort).
Perhaps, it is this blend of pleasure and play with the expertise these hot chefs exemplify that is key. Those are some of the traits we associate with people who cook us luscious meals, and we can’t help but imagine how such traits might extend into, say, their approach to romance. As eharmony psychologist Sharon Draper told Harper’s BAZAAR Australia, “we commonly associate traits with certain careers; nurses are caring, lawyers are strong-willed and so forth. We then use these traits to make judgements about a potential partner and our compatibility with them.”
So when we see a hot chef, we see the traits we might associate with cooking: Dexterity, passion, discipline, creativity. Maybe even good communication skills, thanks to all those barked snippets of kitchen jargon: Behind! Fire! Hands! Yes, chef! And that, right there, is what is sexy about the hot chef—not just the biceps or the tattoos, the scruffy hair and oh-so-tightly-tied apron, though those certainly don’t hurt—but rather the characteristics we associate with them that hint to their romantic capabilities. That is why “there’s nothing sexier than a man who can cook,” because his cooking prowess proves more than the mere ability to successfully poach an egg. As it is for the thirst trap chefs of social media, it’s all in the innuendo. Yes, chef.