Kitchen gladiators

Inspired by TV chefs, men are using their competitive instinct to prepare delectable dishes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 4:41pm

Move over, ladies. After ruling the corporate kingdom by day, men are coming home to pop on the pinny and conquer the kitchen.

The modern man knows his onions. He understands the subtleties of puy lentils versus your standard green or red. He digests culinary technique as keenly as the Hang Seng data. His timing is impeccable. And he's dexterous, too. The alpha male can sashay a soufflé and massage a mash. He can tease a tiramisu and pique a pork belly. When - and why - did cooking become so sexy?

Blame it on the telly, naturally. (MasterChef and Iron Chef, we mean you). Perhaps it's more primal than that. Could today's desk-bound jocks, deprived of opportunities to flex their muscle, regard the kitchen as a theatre for gladiatorial combat?

"It's a contest," agrees chef Stanley Wong, founder of Culinart, who runs cooking classes in Aberdeen. The 15 per cent of his students who are male, and more so in his corporate team-building events, where the gender balance is 50-50, are far more competitive than their female counterparts - especially the money men, the bankers and financial types, whom Wong finds attend class with an "iron chef approach".

Russell Doctrove, consulting chef at Secret Ingredient, which delivers pre-sliced and weighed recipes to be finished off at home, agrees. "The executive sector in Hong Kong is highly competitive and I think this attitude to being the best has spilled over into the kitchen. Guys are always looking for ways to gain that competitive edge and to differentiate themselves from one another."

Britain's Sarah Beeny, founder of property website credits Jamie Oliver with making men think the kitchen is their domain. "The kitchen is the new sports car," Beeny said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. "They spend huge amounts of money on them, not to sit and eat, but to dice and slice, to pan-fry and marinate. Men have turned cooking into theatre; they perform in front of an audience, armed with a large glass of red wine."

Kitchen designers have, of course, tapped into this trend. Poggenpohl claimed pole position with its testosterone-fuelled Porsche Series, unveiled in 2007, as "a kitchen whose sleek and functional design language specifically addresses male customers".

Leicht recently launched its Invis, for invisible, hi-tech kitchen, where everything is hidden, including the hob, designed for men who "particularly like this style".

Junly Chan, chief designer and managing director of Leicht Kitchens Hong Kong, says the male half of the firm's clientele are having a greater say in the kitchen choices, and they are looking for luxury extras such as built-in iPhone docks and motorised cabinets. Men also want a more masculine feeling in their kitchen designs, preferring materials such as marble, gemstones and metals, Chan says.

Jacky Cheng, chief executive of Mooi Living Group, Hong Kong agent for luxury Italian kitchen brand Valcucine, says a signature kitchen is the new status symbol of the successful executive. "Nowadays, men like to have a luxury car, a luxury watch - and now, a luxury kitchen. It's part of their quality lifestyle."

Particularly with men in mind, Valcucine has upped the prestige ante by developing sophisticated materials, such as aluminium frames and carbon fibre or glass for doors. Its new Logica system neatly conceals all kitchen equipment, so that what is a functional workspace one minute can be a sleek piece of furniture the next. Men appreciate that versatility, Cheng says. And they are prepared to pay. Whereas women's decisions may be influenced by budget, Cheng says high-earning men place a priority on securing that high-value, luxury kitchen.

And thanks to the Intelligent Control System (I.C.S.) of uber-luxe kitchen brand De Dietrich, men can be masterchefs without even trying. If, say, you're unsure how to cook a whole chicken - or even for how long - simply press "start", and the oven will do it for you, adjusting the temperature and cooking time as required. French-made De Dietrich cookers are programmed the same as a smartphone - you simply scroll through the functions - and the interactive panels come in a choice of 16 million colours. Sweet!

What makes a kitchen man-friendly? According to Richard Ekkebus, the Michelin-starred executive chef of Mandarin Oriental Landmark Hotel, the routing (or layout) is most important. Benches should be at a height to suit the individual so that tasks can be performed without having to twist or bend. "Ensure your sink is close to the stove and, if possible, make it a deep double. Lighting is more important than most people think: the light source should be under the overhead cabinets so that the light is in front of you, not behind," he says.

Equipment should be of good quality, Ekkebus says. "For a stove, it can be either induction or gas burners, but traditionalists would swear you should only use gas." An oven "is critical", but must also be well-ventilated. Electric ovens are more efficient and precise than gas ovens, Ekkebus finds.

He would forget the much-hyped steamer ovens and even a built-in grill at home, as they rarely work in a domestic incarnation. A large American-style fridge-freezer "is a must and not a luxury", Ekkebus says. "As for small equipment, must-haves are excellent quality, heavy chef's knifes and heavy-bottomed pans - all others are merely nice to have."

Doctrove agrees that men love their gadgets and can be easily sold on products "that they don't really need and will never end up using". His must-haves include a set of cast-iron or copper pots and pans to allow for recipes that need to be sealed on the stove top, then placed in the oven for further cooking. Gadget-wise, he recommends a compact food processor for making purées, marinades and dressings.

"For the guy who really wants to take his cooking to the next level, I would recommend an immersion circulator, which opens up a whole new range of possibilities when cooking fish, meat or vegetables," Doctrove says. "Also, just having a good set of standard professional kitchen appliances such as microplanes, wooden spoons, whisks, and mixing bowls are equally as important."

Doctrove's ideal kitchen would have lots of hidden storage space (to compensate for men's messy habits), with stainless steel and copper as design elements.

"If the kitchen is big enough to hold an island, then that could double up as a prep surface and a dining area complete with rustic bar stools," he says.

Wong would include a good barbecue and teach men how to use it - for example, bringing steak to room temperature first, seasoning it correctly and letting it rest before serving - and using it as an immersion circulator for "brilliant" gastronomic results.

As for how blokes can be better cooks, Ekkebus says the secret to creating exceptional food lies in the passion. "If you truly enjoy cooking and are passionate about food, the quality will follow. Certainly, there is a technical ability that needs to be gained, but that comes with time and time only: learn from your mistakes and move on to better things."

It's hard to pinpoint precisely why men are so good at cooking - we're just glad that they are. Could their preoccupation with the big finish play a part? "For men, presentation is what it's all about," Wong says.



We asked Danny Chaney, head chef at hip, New York-inspired Hong Kong steak restaurant, Blue Butcher, the secret to cooking a good steak.

"First, choose your cut. I like rich, fatty meat, so I look for marble and always go for a rib-eye. The more marbling gives the beef more flavour. If you like lean meat, then I suggest going for grass fed and fillet.

"Cooking tips: two very important rules to get the perfect steak - never put a cold cut of meat on a grill, and rest your meat after you cook it. This makes sure the juices stay where they are supposed to be. I prefer an open-flame grill to give that extra caramelisation.

"Start with a high heat to get a crust, then reduce it, turning the meat only once. Rest it afterwards for 10-15 minutes before serving. I season with just salt and pepper, so that you can really taste the meat.

"To finish: I make a mean [secret recipe] hollandaise sauce, and I also love our Blue Butcher smoke whole grain mustard. Mustard is a great match for steak and helps to cut through the fat. Every steak needs a good couple of side dishes too, and some truffle fries."