The se­cret in­gre­di­ent is . . . Korean men

In the land of kim­chi, TV cook­ing shows are paving the way for guys in the kitchen

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNA FI­FIELD

seoul — Chef Jin Kyung-soo stood in the kitchen, porkpie hat 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 Jong­won; “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 Sikyung, 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 37year-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.

SHIN WOONG-JAE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cho Se-ho, fore­ground, and Sung Si-kyung, right, watch chef Jin Kyung-soo cook steak with fig sauce on “The Olive Show.”

SHIN WOONG-JAE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Chef Nam Sung-youl ex­plains his dish to em­cees and guest chefs dur­ing “The Olive Show” record­ing last month in a stu­dio in Seoul.

THE OLIVE TV

“Doy­aji Pasta,” Nam Sung-youl’s fu­sion cre­ation, fea­tures pork belly mar­i­nated with an­chovy and merges Ital­ian and Korean in­flu­ences.

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