At the Back Fence Issue #315

September 1, 2008

From the Desk of Sandy Coleman:

Boys with Big Knives

Okay, TV chef junkies. Let’s talk about the boys with really big knives.

As in why some of us find some of them so damn hot.

It makes sense to start with the flat-out most obvious thing working here: The food and sex connection. I’ve been clued into this since college when I took a class in which we read assigned books, discussed them, and then saw how the novels translated into films. When a professor includes not only Women in Love (my 19-year old self was totally turned on by Alan Bates oh-so-enthusiastically sucking a fig and declaring that the fruit was “like a female’s parts”) but also Tom Jones (with its hilarious lusty eating scene) as my first exposure to food porn, you know a few things about said professor, if you know what I mean.

But I digress.

So, the powerhouse food/sex combo was hardly untrodden ground for me. But – after years of avoiding the Food Network, something I ranked as only marginally more interesting than the DIY channel – why did I suddenly get so turned on by the boys who cook? (A disclaimer: I am a feminist from w-a-a-a-y back, so the greater number of women chefs in restaurant kitchens, the happier I am. But we’re talking sexual fantasies, so for the strictly limited purpose of this exercise it’s going to be “boys” here.)

I think my introduction to the myriad pleasures of the boys in white can be summed up in two words: Anthony Bourdain.

To those not familiar with the star of No Reservations, Tony is a chef with more than 25 years of experience on the New York restaurant kitchen front lines, an incredibly talented writer, and – most of all – a prototypical bad boy with an off-the-charts attitude who will oh-so-happily lead you down the path to all kinds of hedonistic (and, gee, there’s just not enough hedonism around these days) pleasures. Not the least of which is food porn.

But, despite the bad boy persona that defines him, Tony is also a prep school boy who went to Vassar. He didn’t finish, mind you, but he went.

Tony’s Kitchen Confidential, a book he published in 2000, literally shook my food-loving world when I read it just a few months ago. His depiction of restaurant culture was a revelation to me –and something I never expected to find so fascinating. It’s a world that runs in almost direct opposition to that of the rest of us: They work different hours, they work holidays, and they work so hard for so many freakin’ hours every day that it’s impossible not to look at kitchen workers with a new degree of respect once you gain a full understanding of just what they do.

And here’s the key: It’s also a world in which the daily controlled chaos must operate with an almost a military degree of precision. Here’s Tony on what he looks for in kitchen line workers:

“You want loyalty from your line cooks. Somebody who wakes up with a scratchy throat and slight fever and thinks it’s okay to call in sick is not what I’m looking for. While it’s necessary for cooks to take pride in their work – it’s a good idea to let a good cook stretch a little now and again with the occasional contribution of a special or soup – this is still the army. Ultimately, I want a salute and a ‘Yes, sir!’ If I want an opinion from my line cooks, I’ll provide one.”

I think Bourdain gets down to the crux of the appeal for me here: The extreme level of precision and discipline he describes so evocatively – especially since it comes without those libido-killing regulation military haircuts – is hot. Really, really hot.

Truth is I’ve spent more than half my life fantasizing about aristocratic Regency and Victorian lords, secure in their position and authority. The kind of confidence and privilege exuded by Marcus of Lisa Kleypas’ It Happened One Autumn and Vidal of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub to name just two, is a total turn on…and my fellow historical romance lovers know it. But in the casual, consensus-building, non-hierarchical (not that there’s anything wrong with that) society in which we live today, that kind of bred-in-the-bone aristocratic confidence and authority just might get somebody decked. Or fired. Or maybe even sued for sexual harassment.

Except in the restaurant world. Chefs are gods in the kitchen and the only proper response to an order from the chef – not a “would you mind” or a “when you get around to it” request – is “yes, chef.”

Which, when you think about it, is damn close to “yes, my lord.”

And I like it. I really like it.

I started thinking about just why I was so turned on by Bourdain (and, okay, Gordon Ramsay, Rocco DiSpirito, and Marco Pierre White as well, though to lesser degrees) while reading Hungry for More, a wonderful new book by Diana Holquist featuring a sexy chef hero and some equally incredible food porn.

In fact, here’s how her heroine describes her hero: “She concentrated on the handsome chef. His ink-black, pin straight hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck like a nineteenth century nobleman. His angled cheekbones directed her eyes toward his carefully drawn mouth. In fact, every dark, angled plane of his face pointed toward that tempting, burgundy mouth…”

Hubba, hubba. And I think Diana is onto my own turn on here when she uses the word “nobleman.” So, I asked the author what she (as she obviously does) finds so appealing about chefs.

“I’d argue that chefs are even more swoon-worthy than historical lords because they have the added appeal of being masters of sensual pleasure. They dominate their kitchens with an iron hand sure, but it’s their sensuality and passion that takes their power a step beyond. In Hungry for More, James, the hero, says, ‘Cooking is like making love. Do it right or don’t do it at all.’ A true chef is never lukewarm about physical pleasure.

Then, like you said, there’s the bad boy appeal of a chef. I’d go even further than your lord/chef analogy and argue for a vampire/chef analogy. Chefs are outlaws. They work at night when ordinary men sleep. They don’t fit into mainstream culture. They live to feed. When I had to set up my very unconventional Gypsy heroine with an alpha male, I knew he couldn’t be conventional either – a soldier, a cop, firefighter. He had to be alpha and be an outcast to conventional society. Nothing like a chef to capture all that and make a mean gnocchi.”

So we’re back to that food/sex combo thing again, which is just about as primal as it’s possible to be. And primal is good. Primal is very, very good. And a primal bad boy? Well, that’s off-the-charts sexy. (As for that vamp thing, vampires have another thing going for them: They can make you do it. See, mom, it’s not my fault!)

Sherry Thomas, superlative historical romance author and a new favorite of mine, also features some fabulous food porn in her latest novel, Delicious. Sherry has an interesting twist on the nobleman theory:

“When I read books by Tony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay, I’m always struck by the sky-high level of testosterone.  These men have enough machismo to power a medium-size military installation.  And the thing is, they are soldiers, they came up the ranks.  So they are not your run-of-the-mill hereditary peers, they are more like the Duke of Wellington: They earned their title.  They know how to deal with the heat, the pressure; and they know how to wield big knives. “

Big…knives are good. And Sherry is right about the unapologetic machismo of Bourdain and his pals. It isn’t exactly PC to say this, but women are wired to be drawn to the proudest peacock, the strongest bull … the one with the biggest knife. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we need to forget that in order to get along in a world not naturally attuned to women. But it’s a truth most of us know in our deeper, er, moister woman’s parts.

Which leads me right back to where I started: The food/sex combo, hedonistic pleasures, woman’s parts, and big knives.

And when you think about it, that’s just not a bad place to be.

Sandy Coleman