SEOUL — Chef Jin Kyung-soo stood in the kitchen, fedora and trendy glasses accessorizing his white smock, putting the finishing touches on his steak with fig sauce. Then he served it up to the seven attractive men sitting at the tables in front of him.
“I never get tired of eating this,” said Cho Se-ho, a well-known comedian and one of those waiting to taste Jin’s creation. “It makes me so excited. This food turns me on.” All the other guys fell about laughing.
It’s the latest food craze in South Korea: “sexy cooking men.”
Koreans love eating. Indeed, when they greet each other, they don’t say, “How are you?” but, “Have you eaten?”
Even more, Koreans love eating together, sitting around a table full of communal dishes, dipping their chopsticks into everything and slurping from the same bowl of soup. Food is such a social event that one craze in recent years involved vloggers eating on camera, a phenomenon called “mokbang,” or “eating broadcast,” in part so people at home alone could eat along with them.
Now, it’s “cookbang” that’s all the rage. But not just any cooking show: ones that involve men in the kitchen. That’s a novelty in this Confucian society, where gender roles remain deeply ingrained. Indeed, grandmas shoo men out of the kitchen — that is, those who dare to venture into it in the first place — with an old phrase that roughly means they will lose their masculinity at the stove. (Just substitute another word for “masculinity.”)
But now, there is a whole host of cooking shows that revolve entirely around good-looking men whipping up delicious yet replicable meals. There’s “Mr. Paik’s Home Cooking,” featuring celebrity restaurateur Paik Jong-won; “What Shall We Eat Today?” where two amateurs improvise; and “Please Look After My Fridge,” in which chefs magic up a meal out of the contents of a celebrity’s kitchen.
There’s the more conventionally manly “Three Meals a Day,” a show that involves men camping and cooking over a fire. Then there’s “The Olive Show,” in which a group of chefs use everyday ingredients to come up with five simple meals to last the week. A group of judges, most of them well known, crowns one the winner.
One of the judges during a recent day’s taping was Sung Si-kyung, a K-pop star who also hosts “What Shall We Eat Today?”
“I’m really into cooking and learning how to cook, and I’m really into eating,” Sung said after the taping. Girls were gathered outside the studio, waiting for him to come out. “I think things are changing in Korea. My dad’s generation didn’t cook, but we do.”
Certainly, women love to watch these stylish men chopping and sautéing, advising that meat should sit out of the fridge for a while before frying and warning against using too much extra virgin olive oil (too strong a taste).
For many viewers, it’s escapism.
“I don’t find men who are good at cooking around me in real life, so seeing male chefs on TV is nice,” said Chung Sun-hee, a 37-year-old woman who was grocery shopping with her 8-month-old baby on a recent day. “I think men who can cook are attractive.”
Like many men, Chung’s husband made an effort while they were dating, cooking her kimchi stew and rice. But that stopped once they got married.
But Shin Sang-ho, the producer of “The Olive Show,” was optimistic that Korean society was slowly changing.
“Female viewers watch these trendy young chefs cooking and having a great time, and their men see how interested they are in this and try to cook at home to please them,” he said in the dressing room after the taping. “So it started as a fantasy but has become more popular and more real.”
Nam Sung-youl, the chef who won during that day’s taping, admits that such shows are popular because women are hopeful of seeing men in the kitchen more often. But he also says that he’s noticed some changes. “There are more men cooking these days and more men doing the grocery shopping,” he said.
Nam runs cooking classes and says that where he used to have only five men in a class of 50, now they’re more evenly split, often 30 women to 20 men. And sales of kitchen gadgets have gone through the roof.
Byon Min-young, a 33-year-old marketing manager who recently got married, said he was trying to be part of the change. “I enjoy going to the supermarket with my wife, buying groceries and cooking together,” he said while grocery shopping at a downtown store. Plus, he said, the ladies love it.
“Women think men who cook well are kind and in touch with their emotions, and I see a lot of good-looking male chefs making a lot of money and appearing a lot on TV and doing TV commercials, so I want to cook well for my wife.”
Koo Se-woong, a Korean social commentator who runs a Web site called Korea Expose, said there was another reason these shows had become so popular. “It’s voyeuristic, and Korea is nothing if not voyeuristic,” he said. “There is a great desire to see how other people live and behave.”
The chefs work with everyday ingredients, and that also has an appeal, especially in a weak economy. “This creates a fantasy of domesticity — the idea that you can be part of this lifestyle and this idealized family life,” Koo said.
Indeed, this craze doesn’t just tap into Korean women’s hopes that men will take on more of the cooking, but the more widespread aspiration to move up in the world.
Chang Mi-ran, a 53-year-old saleswoman who was also out grocery shopping, watches the shows but does not want her husband anywhere near her kitchen. For her, the allure is not the cooking but the earning. “I find Paik Jong-won attractive because he makes good money,” she said.
For now, these celebrity chefs are sticking to the old mantra that sex sells. Nam, judged the winner during this taping for his pasta with pork and anchovies, got to film the show’s sign-off. Addressing the camera after his victory, Nam ripped open his chef’s jacket and declared: “Everyone, eat before sleeping!”
And that was a wrap.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.