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More men don the apron

Middle-aged and elderly men learn to cook as hobby or second career

When Han Jin-se enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu-Sookmyung last year, he had no cooking experience. Now, Han has mastered three levels and is completing the academy’s final program this June.

An expert in the kitchen now, Han tosses out culinary lingo with ease, explaining how learning to cook not only helped prepare him to open his own restaurant, but also fostered family time with his son.

“I bring home the food that I cook in class and my son brings a bottle of wine,” said Han, 61, an insurance broking firm chairman and soon-to-be restaurateur.

Not only does Han’s newfound second career-hobby give him more quality time with his son, he finds it personally rewarding as well.

“I get this rush once I feel I have essentially mastered a dish,” Han said.

Though Han said he was the only one among his friends who can cook, in the big picture, he is far from alone.

For instance, Lee Byung-wan, 61, started to learn how to cook for volunteer work purposes. Lee continued to learn how to make cake and bread and then enrolled into the Gangnam district-run Daddy’s Cooking Class at the Long Learn Academy to further his culinary expertise.

Lee is one of over 15 fellow classmates who have signed up for the men-only cooking program held in Gaepo-dong every Monday evening.

Daddy’s Cooking Class launched in 2009, according to Gangnam-gu Lifelong Learning team manager Moon E-seul, and currently holds two separate classes, one on Mondays and one on Wednesdays. Both are exclusively for men.

“It is very popular,” said Moon, 27. “Our students are men in their late 40s to 60s who are facing retirement or who have retired.”

Daddy’s Cooking Class is one of the programs throughout the nation that is geared specifically towards men, signaling that the class is not an anomaly but part of a growing trend. 
Participants learn to cook at the male-only Daddy’s Cooking Class at the Long Learn Academy in Gaepo-dong, Seoul, on Monday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Participants learn to cook at the male-only Daddy’s Cooking Class at the Long Learn Academy in Gaepo-dong, Seoul, on Monday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

“I think there are two major reasons why more older men are cooking these days,” food cable channel Olive team head Seo Won-yea, 36, said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald.

“Firstly, men who like to eat out, who are basically gourmands, take on cooking as a hobby to be able to make food that meets their own standards,” Seo said.

That theory seems to apply, in part, to Le Cordon Bleu-Sookmyung student Han Jin-se.

“Insurance broking was no longer fun,” said Han, explaining how after 18 years of work, he decided to try something different.

“Whenever I traveled abroad, I would visit an oyster bar,” Han said. And when he realized there was a scarcity of oyster bars in Korea, he decided to open one himself.

To realize his dreams, Han enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, where he would amass the know-how that would help him open a restaurant born of his own passion for oysters.

In essence, it was his own gourmet tastes that led him down the path to finding a second career. However, for Han, cooking is more than just a hobby ― it is partly a profession, in that it will help him as a restaurateur.

Le Cordon Bleu-Sookmyung PR manager Yang Jin-won said that like Han, most men in their 50s or older who enroll at the academy are either interested in opening their own restaurant or are working in the food industry.

That used to be the case for another prominent South Korea-based culinary academy, tsuji+1. According to marketing team manager Park Sun-jung, however, there has been an increase in the number of middle-aged male students enrolling in classes as a hobby.

Park revealed that while middle-aged male students are primarily interested in French and Italian food, they are also interested in the academy’s wine and food pairing gourmet classes. This shows that men seem to be, as Olive’s Seo said, taking on cooking as a leisurely pastime that enables them to satisfy their own hunger for good grub.

In Seo’s opinion, a new hobby prompted by a love of food is only one of the reasons why more men are entering the kitchen.

“The second reason comes from social circumstances, from an increase in the number of those who eat alone,” Seo said.

“Lots of men are living a single lifestyle,” Seo explained. “For example, there are fathers whose families are living abroad or husbands who work in a different city than their spouses, so they need to cook for themselves.”

According to Statistics Korea, there was a notable increase in the number of divorces in men in their late 50s and 60s and over between 2011 and 2012. There was an 8 percent increase in divorces of men in their late 50s and a 6.1 percent increase in men in their 60s and over divorcing. Furthermore, from 2000 to 2010 there was a 103.6 percent increase in the number of men living alone.

While the numbers point to a rise in the number of men who are likely leading the lifestyle of a singleton and who therefore may need to learn to cook as a necessity, Gangnam-gu Lifelong Learning’s Moon stressed that societal perceptions also play an important role in bringing more men into the kitchen, with a society that upholds gender equality as the norm increasingly focused on the role men play within their families.

“My wife welcomes it,” said Kang Tae-hong, 63, who enrolled at Daddy’s Cooking Class after a few other men at his office started attending the program.

Kang, who runs his own business, explained how the class is also practical because now “I can make food when I am home alone.”

Fellow student Kim Kon-seok, 69, revealed that after he quit his job two years ago, he ended up eating at home two to three times a week. Aware of the toll that cooking all those meals would take on his wife and of his own personal desire to be able to eat a wide variety of dishes throughout the week, he acted upon a relative’s suggestion that he take a cooking class.

“So I came here, I tried it and it was not that hard,” Kim said, adding that he plans to keep on going to Daddy’s Cooking Class. “I feel happy when I cook my own food.”

Gone are the ancient perceptions of the alpha male’s role in society.

Jin Yang-ho, 60, a professor of food service and culinary management at the college of tourism sciences, Kyonggi University, recapped that age-old concept, explaining how in the past, “the older generations saw the kitchen as no-man’s territory.”

That attitude has changed. Now, men are taking cooking on as a challenge, says Jin. The key, however, is that it is a challenge that is not too daunting. If cooking may have possessed an air of the formidable in the old days, now it is far more approachable and accessible.

“Now that many restaurants have open kitchens, people feel like they can do it themselves,” Jin explained, adding that being able to see how the experts concoct dishes like pasta and steak makes cooking less of a mystery.

Furthermore, the development of ready-made sauces and other such products has made cooking easier, said Jin.

“One can look up recipes online,” Jin added.

While single-style living, gourmet tastes and the increased approachability of cooking may all play a key role in getting more men to cook, current trends towards holistic well-being and changes in how men in the kitchen are perceived seem to have also wielded some influence.

“Well-being, healing trends have made us a very health-conscious generation and cooking is a natural extension of that,” said Jin.

Not only have trends like “well-being” and “healing” potentially spurred the increase in the number of men who cook, so has the way that men cooking are looked upon.

“Women no longer seem to harbor dreams of meeting a tough, macho alpha male,” said Olive’s Seo. “Now that women are working hard, they seem to harbor dreams of a guy who can whip up brunch in the morning.”

By Jean Oh (