Dudes Who Bake Are Hot
Dudes Who Bake Are Hot

India’s most celebrated pastry chefs tell us how their world came a full circle — from men firing the first ovens in history, to gender signalling rendering it ‘effeminate’ and finally, a new crop of chefs turning that narrative on its head

There’s something tacit about the image of a pinafore clad woman and a cake. And something more implicit about that cake being pastel pink. This is weird because if you look at the history of pastry — right from the days of open-topped clay ovens in ancient Egypt to the time of the tabun, prevalent in the Middle East since the 11th century (or before) — men have always been the ones kneading the dough. But at some point, the narrative changed, and it started seeming ‘special’, gender-defying even, for a man to be making pastry. Enough to tilt the statistics. For instance, in the last decade, seven out of the nine winners of the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker Award has been a woman. Another study states that 64.3% of all pastry chefs in the US are women. If I took numbers out of the equation and simply paid attention to the interviewees of this story, the proposition holds up — from Vinesh Johnny’s famed Bengaluru-based bakery and school, Lavonne, to Daniel Trulson’s idyllic Bread and Chocolate in Puducherry, and Prateek Bakhtiani’s chocolate atelier in Mumbai, Ether, all their teams are predominantly female-led.

 

And yet, the harder Johnny thinks — answering my questions at the transit lounge in Mumbai airport — the more clearly, he remembers his uncle summoning burly men to knead the dough for his family-owned bakery. “They weren’t pastry chefs, or chefs at all. They were just big guys…,” he trails off. Bakhtiani helps me make sense of it. “Women or girliness being associated with pastry is a very modern phenomenon. And it comes by because of cultural shifts that took place in the ‘40s and ‘50s in America and Western Europe. War was just about ending and most of the men were away, so women had to take up bakery jobs. This was also when a lot of the confectionary items — that were prevalent only in king’s courts, like royal icing — became cheaper and easier to produce industrially, making them available at everyday bakeries, where now, women were of course, working,” he elucidates.

 

Prateek Bakhtiani, Creative Director, Ether Chocolate

 

Simultaneously, manufacturers in the West decided to use colours as gender signifiers — such as pink for girls and blue for boys — leading to a culture, where women came to be associated with delicate, pretty things. Ethnically a Kazakh, but now based in Mumbai, Nariman Abdygapparov, chef and cofounder of Masa Bakery, observes how gender stereotyping in pastry consolidated further with the rise of American television and high-profile chefs, like Nigella Lawson, or movies like Julie and Julia. “The perception that cooking and baking is mostly for women, can sometimes, discourage men from entering the industry, just because of the stigma,” he laments.

 

It’s interesting that Abdygapparov brings up Nigella because 11 years ago, a YouTube creator uploaded a video titled “Nigella Talks Dirty” that has since amassed 9.4 million views. In it, different rushes from her shows have been stitched together to produce a — distasteful for some, funny for others — video montage, such that, a clip of her saying “If you want to squeeze” is cleverly cut and made to jump to Lawson enunciating the words, “my plumptious beauties,” in her unmissable, fetching voice. Lawson’s sexual objectification in the mashup is not lost on anyone. But if you compare it with, say, Internet sensation, Cedrik Lorenzen’s Instagram reels (although self-styled) — that are equally sexual, sensual and all things steamy — one thing is clear: In the YouTube parody, Lawson is the object, whereas in Lorenzen’s, the cream, chocolate and honeydew melon — he is squeezing, squishing and licking — is.

 

Cedrik Lorenzen

 

Lorenzen is one of the few, among a band of Instagram/ Tik Tok creators, who in GenZ parlance, are called ‘Thirst Trap Chefs’. And it’s been a strange cycle — from men assuming the primary role in traditional pastry kitchens across cultures; to the commercialisation of food (making it a channel of employment instead of sustenance) rendering the same role as effeminate/ undignified; to the boom of social media helping pastry chefs, like Lorenzen, climb the popularity charts. The narrative today certainly suggests that a man fashioning a few ingredients into a pistachio white chocolate and vanilla yoghurt cake is hot. And while the sexualisation of pastry isn’t new (think dessert names like, Sex In A Pan and ‘Slutty’ Brownies) the gaze is as much on the man, as it was once on a woman. For Trulson, who is also a business partner in the wildly famous specialty coffee venture, Subko, thinking of gendered roles in pastry is hard. But prod him enough about what makes a male pastry chef so desirable today and he says, “Baking was always just really cool to me. I mean, it’s magical. You’re taking something as basic as flour, water and a bit of salt. You combine them and with the power of time, you leaven and transform it into bread… and that’s attractive to anyone,” he rationalises.

 

Nariman Abdygapparov, Masa Bakery

 

There’s truth there, because pastry, and cooking by and large, had for the longest time, been viewed simply, as a rudimentary skill. But with the advent of the Internet, dissemination of knowledge, a collective interest in food, health and nutrition and the rise of ‘celebrity’ chefs, food has experienced a perspective shift where it is now viewed as art instead. And artists are attractive. “Pastry may have been considered effeminate, but the use of art, photography and social media to showcase its beauty, helps draw more people into the field, especially men,” says Abdygapparov, adding how historically, men wavered into commercial kitchens only when they couldn’t become an engineer or finance expert. “If you couldn’t do anything else, you became a chef,” he shares, pointing towards a long-standing stigma around male chefs. But are all chefs leveraging social media ‘aesthetics’ to embellish their own personas? Lorenzen, too, often uses the medium to talk about gender roles, but if you pay attention, primarily to present the craft of pastry. Echoing this, Bakhtiani tells us, “I am not a content creator. I am a chef. And our aim is not to make pastry look hot. That’s just not what we’re trying to do. But I think, it ends up being that way, not so much because of what we’re doing, but the fact that we are doing it. It is fundamentally brave to go against the current, and I think bravery is just straight up sexy, right?” Damn right, dude.

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