Stephen Burton, a project manager for a pharmaceutical company who lives outside Philadelphia, was once the kind of college student who might spend five hours perfecting a cream puff recipe, but his cooking obsession really took off when he and his wife had their first child. He pored over Mexican and Thai cookbooks, seeking out ethnic ingredients in specialty stores and experimenting with them at home. Only occasionally did he actually make a meal with them.
“My poor wife just wanted some food and some sleep and I’m down in the kitchen playing Top Chef,” he admits.
We’ve come a long way from the 1950s, when a woman’s place was in front of her mint-green Magic Chef stove and men were considered genetically incapable of doing more than flipping burgers on alternate Saturdays. These days, more men are cooking at home, and plenty are helpfully doing all the cooking. But as men get more and more into food, it seems that some of them are bringing an obsessive, sometimes competitive, spirit to cooking that has little to do with actually helping. It’s more John Cusack in High Fidelity than Betty Crocker. Or it’s, as I like to call it, “Iron Chef Syndrome.”
The symptoms? Hotshot kitchen skills—including the ability to stuff a turducken, disarticulate an entire heirloom hog, and set up home-brewing systems more complex than the average microbiology lab—combined with the seeming inability to “cook simple.” A quick mac ’n’ cheese dinner for the kids? How about a macaroni-fennel gratin with chunks of La Quercia’s Tamworth bacon that will be finished approximately three hours after the kids go to bed?
When Elizabeth Weil, a San Francisco writer, penned a 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story about improving her marriage, one of her major complaints revolved around her husband’s cooking habits. Her husband (Daniel Duane, who has blogged about food and wine for CHOW) cooked all the home meals, she wrote, but the cooking was less about practical nurturing than about his own need for skill-mastery. Duane hid in the kitchen for hours every day, frying up pig ears and making champagne crêpes while Weil was “left to attend to our increasingly hungry, tired and frantic children and to worry about money.”
Those whose spouses have Iron Chef Syndrome often suffer in silence. As Weil pointed out, she gained no sympathy from her friends. Hey, their attitude seemed to be, at least your husband is cooking.
DRAGGING HOME-BREW EQUIPMENT ACROSS CONTINENTS
The stereotype of the woman who packs obscenely large suitcases full of shoes is being put to the test by the growing legions of men afflicted by Iron Chef Syndrome. Lucy Corne, a 32-year-old travel writer, recounts the time her husband insisted on bringing his home-brewing equipment along for an intercontinental move from South Korea to South Africa.
“I spent hours doing a perfect packing job, and then, lacking a car, we pushed this absurdly large and heavy box to the post office on a skateboard, only to find out it was too large to send,” recalls Corne. “He then had me carry it with him through Seoul as we went to meet a guy who was buying it from him. Rather embarrassing walking into a pub with a couple of giant pans and some rubber hose!”
Illustration by Juan Leguizamon