TV chefs like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and baker Buddy Valastro are ever present these days. But what does the immense focus on the male celebrity chefs tell us about our culture and our ideals for food and masculinity? This is the primary focus in a new PhD dissertation by Jonatan Leer from the University of Copenhagen. The dissertation examines masculinity in TV cooking shows.
"I made two observations that inspired me to my doctoral work on food and masculinity. First of all, we presently see a break-up of traditional gender roles and increasing uncertainty about the masculine role. Secondly, a large group of male celebrity chefs have been very visible in the media over the last years. The celebrity chefs do not only convey recipes for food but also recipes for 'the good life' and 'the good masculinity'. The modern man can use cooking as a means to define new masculinities in a time where the masculine role is up for debate. With my dissertation I have wanted to capture the basic understanding of 'doing food' and 'doing masculinity' as two mutually constitutive practices. When a man is cooking in a certain manner he is also constructing himself as a certain kind of man," explains food and gender scholar Jonatan Leer from the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen.
The Naked Chef as first mover
In his thesis, Jonatan Leer analyzes cooking television shows from England, France and Denmark. The research takes Jamie Oliver's first TV show from 1999 'The Naked Chef' as starting point. This program is one of the most iconic examples of how cooking television becomes a platform to renew 'the masculine', Jonathan Leer explains.
"In 'The Naked Chef' we witness the then 22-year-old chef Jamie Oliver in his home when he cooks for fun. Through his casual approach to cooking, Jamie Oliver is able to navigate between different masculine repertoires. When he parties with his band and makes strong curry dishes for supper, Jamie is the incarnation of a 'new lad'. But when he spends an afternoon in the kitchen with his nieces, teaching them how to make ravioli, he is flirting with a softer kind of masculinity. Jamie Oliver's 'The Naked Chef' can be seen as an attempt to create a mobile masculinity that alters expression according to context. Cooking is used on the one hand to express 'manliness' and on the other to embrace traditionally female spaces (the kitchen) and traditionally female practices (caring for children)."
Gordon Ramsay's traditional gender roles
Jonatan Leer points out, however, that even though cooking programs at the end of the 90's renewed the way in which men cooked, this is by no means the case for all cooking programs. In his research, the food scholar has found several examples of programs that do the exact opposite and which hails the traditional male role. This is especially true for Gordon Ramsay who uses cooking as a way of disciplining liberated modern women and to celebrate traditional gender roles.
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