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In Paternalistic S. Korea, 'Sexy Cooking Men' Break Kitchen Barrier

  • Reuters

Lee Jin-soo (2nd R), 53, looks at a small octopus as he and others take part in Happy Guys Cooking Class in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2015.

Lee Jin-soo (2nd R), 53, looks at a small octopus as he and others take part in Happy Guys Cooking Class in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2015.

After work on a recent Friday, 53-year-old Lee Jin-soo headed for the "Happy Guys Cooking Class," where he joined six other mostly middle-aged men in tall white hats and aprons.

Lee, who runs a business making compression bags for bedding, gently handled abalone and shrimp and made a rice crust that went into the Korean stew of chicken and seafood on the evening's menu.

He is one of a growing number of men taking up cooking in a country where men have long done little housework. South Korean men came bottom in a 2014 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey on housework, with just 21 minutes a day.

Lee described himself as an authoritarian father and domineering husband, which he says he now regrets.

Lee Jin-soo (C), 53, prepares an ear shell at Happy Guys Cooking Class in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2015.

Lee Jin-soo (C), 53, prepares an ear shell at Happy Guys Cooking Class in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2015.

"I wanted to change. Taking cooking classes here was the turning point," he said, showing off pictures of himself serving a Chinese cold vegetable dish for his wife and her friends.

"I've been thinking recently, hierarchy is not needed for making a happy family. Cooking is," he said.

The kitchen was once seen as off-limits for men in South Korea, so much so that according to a saying: "If a man enters the kitchen, he risks losing his testicles."

Demographics and popular culture are changing that.

With more women working in demanding professional jobs and households shrinking, meaning fewer women family members, many men no longer have the choice not to cook.

Reality television shows featuring men cooking and the emergence of star male chefs are also credited with helping lure men into the kitchen, spawning a catch phrase: "Sexy cooking men."

Gmarket, an online retailer owned by eBay Inc, said sales of kitchen utensils to men rose 24 percent in the first half of 2015.

The appeal of men who can cook as potential husbands is also prodding younger males to take to the kitchen.

"Young men are saying: 'if you can't cook you can't get married'," said Han Hee-won, a chef who has run the cooking class for men in a trendy riverside neighborhood of Seoul since 2012.

Go Dong-rok, a student chef and a human resources executive at auto parts maker Hyundai Mobis, found the experience of learning to make pizza and the traditional Korean dish bibimbap so enlightening that he brought the idea to his work, organizing an event where male employees cooked Korean food and invited their wives.

"Korean society is paternalistic and just because they work during the day, husbands want to be served by their wives. But cooking can soften this," he said.

Whether Korean men apply their newfound zeal for cooking to the more menial chores remains to be seen.

"I hear some men have fun cooking but then they leave the kitchen without doing the dishes," said Lee Soo-yeon, a researcher at the Korean Women's Development Institute.

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