Equal parts publicity stunt and high school popularity contest, Eater’s Hottest Chef contest has become as much a food blog ritual as plywood reports and tabletop photography. The 2012 edition of the annual hotness bracket is now in its semifinal round. It’s a little silly, a little demeaning, and generally harmless, food media’s equivalent of a wall calendar plastered with half-naked firemen.

As such, it isn’t required to teach a lesson, though it does serve as a useful (if predictable) reminder of how relatively few women chefs receive the kind of drooling attention lavished on their male counterparts. Of the 17 U.S. cities in Eater’s contest, eight have one female chef in the running (out of four semifinalists), another has two, and one has three. Portland breaks the mold with four.

But maybe it’s to the ladies’ advantage to largely sit this one out. Women have to deal with enough sexual objectification on a daily basis, on and off the job. And as this week’s panel and dinner at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club illustrates, there’s a wafer-thin line between the idly entertaining and the vaguely pimpy. Titled “Meet and Eat with SF’s Hottest Culinary Crew,” the panel is billed as an opportunity to “whet your appetite with [Bar Agricole executive chef] Brandon Jew and his posse of hot chef pals.” Their food, of course, “is undoubtedly delicious, but it’s often the innovators in the kitchen who are the most drool-worthy.” Zing!

You could be forgiven for thinking Carrie Bradshaw barfed out that copy, just as you could be forgiven for thinking that the event is less a lofty panel discussion than an excuse to sit around and chew over beefcake. Whether the chefs will wear tear-away whites and gyrate to “I Believe in Miracles” isn’t specified in the promotional material. Also unclear is whether this constitutes one step forward or eight steps back for chefs, who apparently now have to worry about manscaping in addition to food costs, labor management, and surprise visits from health inspectors.

What’s more obvious is that given half the chance, foodies will fetishize their own as readily as any other subculture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as any self-respecting chef could tell you, there’s something to be said for employing subtlety in one’s technique, and for handling meat with care.

Photo of Michael Chernow, chef at The Meatball Shop in New York City, courtesy of Daniel Krieger

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