When I was single, I knew I wasn't destined to pair off with a 9-to-5 guy. Raised in a food-obsessed family, I imagined that a chef would be the perfect companion: a ripe, young visionary whose biceps were swollen from lifting 25-gallon stockpots--anyone under 40 would do nicely, as long as he commanded a three-star kitchen.
As it happened, I married a man who would love to blowtorch crème brûlée but who calls the shots in a newsroom instead of a kitchen. Still, an enduring fascination with restaurants and with the men in white led me back to the question: what's it like to date a chef?
Women who've lived the fantasy report that having an affair with a chef offers the same risks and rewards as scoring a table at a buzz-inflated restaurant--it's thrilling, when it isn't maddening. The food and sex connection, of course, is right up front. "All the chefs I've met have a passion for food that definitely translates into other areas," says Susan Gross, who is married to Dan Silverman, now the chef at New York City's Alison on Dominick. "When I met Dan on a blind date, his hands were greenish from chopping herbs, and he had all these little cuts and burns. I thought it was so sexy." Gross reports that she "nearly died" when she went to see Silverman in action at Bouley, where he was working as a sous-chef: "When I saw him in his whites, I thought, 'Eating this amazing food cooked by this very, very cool guy--oh my God, it's foreplay.'"
By most accounts, an affair with a chef tends to progress from hormonal surge to shared living quarters in approximately two weeks. Unless, of course, the chef is too exhausted to move. "Our first dinner together was at a really nice restaurant in Coral Gables, Florida," recalls Cynthia Sterkenburg, a medical student whose boyfriend is Gary Robins, the chef at Soma Park in Manhattan. "At the end of the meal, Gary said, 'I have to go home--I don't feel very well.' I didn't hear from him for days. He told me later that he collapsed and was in bed for 48 hours. I just thought, 'I guess I didn't make a great impression.'"
Lovers who don't understand that working in a professional kitchen is as physically draining as, say, slamming granite on a chain gang--and that vacations are not an option--rarely go the distance. "I've been at work 60 days in a row," says Raphael Lunetta, the chef at Santa Monica's JiRaffe. "To tell you the truth, my girlfriend's a little pissed right now."
Groupies are another fact of life for chefs. "Most of the chefs I know, their personal lives are wrecks," says one restaurant-business veteran. "They're very jaded about women. They get a lot of groupies, and they plunder those."
Sterkenburg reports that when Robins does make it to a bar with her, she never knows who'll be sitting beside him when she comes back from the bathroom. "Sometimes Gary really gets annoyed--he'll say, 'Oh, please, I'm just out with my girlfriend.' There's a rock-and-roll aspect to being a chef. Women think that men who can cook are sexy--add a little power, and it's irresistible."
Survivors report that the best way to cope is to make sure your boyfriend is maniacally busy (no problem there) and to regard the attention as confirmation that you picked the right guy. Kris Kruid, the live-in girlfriend and business partner of Jacques Torres, the pastry chef at Manhattan's Le Cirque 2000, fields e-mailed come-ons for him every day: "Women write, 'I love you'; gay men think he's cute; even kids will tell him, 'My mom needs a boyfriend.'"
Aside from the problem of groupies, getting involved with a chef requires coping with marathon meals and the specter of getting fat. Not at home ("My boyfriend doesn't get cooked for a lot," reports Susan Spicer, the chef at New Orleans' Bayona), but at serious restaurants. "Oh, God," says Wendy Armstrong, whose boyfriend, Scott Warner, is the corporate chef for a company that owns several San Francisco restaurants, including Rose Pistola. "The last time we were in France, we had five meals a day for a week. It was grueling. I got sick, and I was dying to skip a meal, but I didn't."
The biggest hurdle for women who can't resist chefs, however, is that this profession, which attracts lots of extravagant romantics, also pulls in its share of reprobates. "The business fosters a kind of egocentrism," says Lisa Schroeder, the chef at Besaw's Café in Portland, Oregon, who's seen up close the way male colleagues treat their girlfriends. "European chefs, in particular, are allowed to treat employees like crap: they yell and scream, and it carries over into their personal lives. You can't be a tyrant at work and sensitive at home."
In some cases, chefs offer charisma and little else. "There are lots of flirtatious scoundrels in the business," says a West Coast businesswoman who had a fling with a star chef. "They're incredibly charming and sexy--like Warren Beatty in Shampoo."
An American woman briefly courted by one European describes him as a parody of a cad. After they were introduced by friends, she came to his restaurant for lunch; he swept out of the kitchen, kissed her on the mouth and cribbed her phone number from the reservations book. "When he was trying to get me to sleep with him it was, 'Come up for a $12,000 bottle of Champagne,'" she says. "Afterward, he lost interest. The last time I saw him, he was engaged, but he was trolling for women and doing drugs in a late-night place on Madison Avenue."
Another American woman has a similar tale to tell about being pursued by an over-the-top Brit. Sent to chef X by a mutual friend, she joined him for a Champagne-fueled lunch at his restaurant; by dessert, he was caressing her leg with his foot. He invited her to return the next day, ostensibly to witness the drama in the kitchen. After an hour, though, he took off his apron and beckoned her into the alleyway. "He started kissing me, and I said something like, 'Don't you have to go back inside and cook?'" she laughs. Instead, he led her to a nearby park, where things got steamier. Afterward, they walked back into the restaurant "through the front door," she says, "past all these people who were thinking they were eating his food."
She returned to the States; he became a hypernova. But for years, he would call her in the middle of the night. "He'd say, 'Oh, darling, you must come back. The sound of your voice is too much for me.'" "Of course," she adds, "If I'd have taken him up on it, he'd have vanished in a minute."
Michelle Green is a freelance writer in New York City.