Next time you happen across a man who can cook, give the guy a cookie — he deserves it! Come on, he’s doing household chores and spending time in the kitchen, something he’ll make sure you know that his dad only sometimes did, and his grandfather never did. He’s part of a new generation of men: A generation of male culinary allies, men who idolize Anthony Bourdain and have a kitchen cabinet full of premium spices. He even has a set of German-engineered knives that he’s made an Instagram video of himself using to julienne some carrots. For him, cooking isn’t a chore, it’s a creative process! And that’s why he needs the right tools to help him strive for excellence — specifically, that $350 All-Clad copper sauté pan he just bought.
“One reason why business is growing, and it’s the right time to have launched this cookware brand, is that unlike 30 years ago, cooking, for the home cook, is considered a skill and not a chore,” says Jake Kalick, co-founder of Made In cookware, one of myriad brands in the now-crowded field of high-quality kitchen utensils. “It’s no longer exclusively about cooking to be a homemaker: It’s about cooking because there’s a certain skill involved with learning certain techniques. Men and women are really taking pride in becoming more skilled cooks. … The fact that cooking is becoming a skill, people are using cookware just like another tool to be better at a skill.”
Which is the sort of language that, intentionally or not, is the issue here. Cooking, as Amy Trubek, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont, points out, has always been a skill. What’s changed, she says, is the way we talk about cooking. “Mexican women making tortillas or older Italian women making pasta is an extremely dexterous practice,” she says. “But what you see is that for men to participate, the discourse can’t be that cooking is a chore or an obligation: The discourse has to be one of mastery and performance.”
The trend of men cooking at home is one that’s been growing for a while, and a lot of it is undeniably positive. In 2012, Time reported on a study in which researchers from the University of Michigan followed the lifestyle habits of a group of 3,000 Generation X adults — men and women born between the years 1961 and 1981. They found that Gen X men were more involved in all aspects of meal preparation and spent more time in the kitchen than their dads did. “Men have fun in the kitchen,” Jon Miller, the director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, told Time. “I was surprised by how often they shop and cook. If men just happened to wander into the kitchen and make something, that makes more sense, but when you buy into the whole process, then you’re into it. Clearly they are into it.”
But “more time” doesn’t mean “equal time.” Lindsey Smith Taillie, an assistant professor at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, who has undertaken similar research, wants to make it clear that women are still both much more likely to cook and spend much more time cooking, across all income and racial-ethnic groups. “The increase in men cooking could be due to men staying single longer (i.e., lacking a partner to cook for them) or due to more equitable sharing of cooking responsibilities across partners (by choice or necessity),” she tells me.
Either way, it’s clear that getting men onboard with domestic drudgery required a complete change to the discourse. In a 2015 Telegraph article, Paul Levy described “the kitchen as the new shed — a place to retreat to and ponder important thoughts while they get their goat’s cheese soufflé absolutely right. It’s a man cave where we can keep our tools — only the battery recharger has given way to the batterie de cuisine; the lethally edged Japanese knives are in their racks; the heavy-bottomed Le Creuset pots hang on their hooks, the lids neatly stored.”
Kayden Horwitz, a co-founder of Milo, another cookware company founded by men, has also noticed the changes in the way society writ large talks about cooking, comparing it to other notably masculine endeavors. “It’s kind of like this idea of my dad knowing how to sail,” he says. “If you put him on a sailboat, he’d be okay. There’s this idea of self-sufficiency. Cooking has become one of those things for me where it’s just like, as a man you should be able to cook a few things well. Like, you should be able to nail a cacio e pepe, you should be able to make a great breakfast burrito. Whatever it is, that’s just something that should be in your arsenal.”
Just the use of the word “arsenal” in this context is a notable departure from what, in the past, Trubek says was considered little more than tedious labor. “Men don’t want to identify cooking as drudgery — they want to identify it as creativity or being liberated,” she says. “As cooking becomes less associated with women’s work, and as more men introduce a performative and mastery-based set of values to cooking, you see a greater interest in the tools of the trade.” Hence what Trubek describes as a certain zeitgeist around technically oriented cooking. “It doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a skillful approach to cooking before, but the status of the skill is changing,” she says. “So now everyone has their own sous-vide machine.”
The proliferation of interest in kitchen gadgets hasn’t gone unnoticed — it’s what’s led to the steady rise of chef-quality cookware startups like Made In and Milo, who are hoping to capitalize on the evolution of what it means to cook at home. Horwitz notes that even the architecture of the home has changed in such a way as to highlight the kitchen rather than hide it. “I live in a house that was built in 1926,” he says. “Our kitchen is separate from the dining room — homes were built like that then because you wanted the kitchen to be this mess that’s away from everything. It’s not sexy, it’s this secret. But now, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of a fancy modern home? It’s an open kitchen.”
Again, men spending more time in the kitchen is unequivocally a step in the right direction with regard to greater equity of household labor amongst men and women. Because it goes without saying that for most of the 20th century (and all of every century before that), cooking was characterized as a woman’s job. “Before the second World War, North American women did most of the cooking to little fanfare: Insert affordable ingredients in stomach, repeat thrice daily,” writes Katrina Onstad in The Globe and Mail. “The first cooking classes were utilitarian, a means for women to find employment as domestics. But after the war, men came home as trained cooks and took their skills to market.”
According to Onstad, “masculine power” lent credibility to the job, which would ultimately lead to the rise of the male restaurant chef. “In public, men were lauded for the craft of cooking, while private food preparation in the family kitchen remained mostly unheralded women’s work,” writes Onstad. Cooking then became acceptable for men in the context of a technical set of tasks, rewarded with a salary, rather than a form of obligatory nurturing within the home. And that’s how it stayed for some time: Men gained prestige running restaurant kitchens while women silently fed the children.
If this masculine tinge has helped persuade more men to do their part in the kitchen, though, why has the same stamp of approval not been applied to the realm of household cleaning? Where is the exotic car equivalent of the vacuum cleaner? Simple, says Trubek: “Men would rather cook than clean because it gets you more positive attention.”
To that end, in her 2016 Atlantic article, Olga Khazan cites Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s study that found that when men feel emasculated because they’re outearned by their wives, they react by doing less labor, the only exception being cooking. According to their findings, unlike other household chores, the more men’s wives earned, the more time the men spent in the kitchen. “Cooking, they speculate, has become manly — more of a leisure activity than a chore, and one that can involve flaming-hot meats, no less,” writes Khazan. “Indeed, in another recent study of men who cook, the participants saw cooking as a type of ‘work-leisure’ — not quite one or the other. The ones who had ‘few or no childcare responsibilities’ were more likely to find it pleasurable, since ‘they seemed to have more freedom to relax and take their time in the kitchen.’”
Khazan’s point about men interpreting cooking as “work-leisure” is also something Trubek talks about in her book, Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today. “The real complexity of cooking in modern U.S. is that nobody ever feels like they have enough time to cook,” she says. “It’s a lot of small-scale decision making even for one person. As long as women feel like they have to do the everyday problem solving and men continue to do the more celebratory and more complex cooking, then you’re not solving what is, for most women, the real problem of cooking, which is that it’s the endlessness of it. It’s the daily grind of it. For most of the women I interviewed [for her book], that’s what drags them down. Those are the parts that need to be shared equitably.”
None of which, sad to say, is likely to be solved by a brand new, $400 micro carbide stainless steel chef’s knife.