Paul Hollywood is the latest TV chef to be acclaimed as a sex symbol. Is 'hotness' now a prerequisite for the job? Lucy Cavendish and William Skidelsky debate the issue
Lucy Cavendish, writer and a former editor of Observer Food MonthlyI remember making bread – and, yes, I do mean bread before any of you out there assume this is a euphemism – with TV chef Paul Hollywood just before the first series of the phenomenon that is The Great British Bake Off came to our screens. I was at Mary Berry's house (to interview her and him) and the first time I saw Hollywood (what a name!) he was emerging from his car and all I could think about was how attractive he was. It seemed obvious to me from the outset that he was heading for TV stardom. Handsome, well-groomed, authoritative and yet somehow reassuringly manly; he might have a trimmed beard, but he has that silver fox thing going on. I was in no doubt then that he'd be a success. Now he has his own series, Bread, and has become the toast of the nation. He has female fans wilting with desire for him, his own "exclusive" photoshoot with the Radio Times and is feted by the Daily Mail. Could he have achieved this success without the sexiness he exudes? I think these days it is impossible. Chefs now need to be more than good cooks. They have to excite. They need to lick their fingers à la Nigella, or knead bread with their big manly hands.
William Skidelsky, writer and author of Gourmet LondonAlas, Britain's favourite baker has never had quite that effect on me. However, I can see what it is about him that gets people hot under the collar: as you say, that no-nonsense way with a ball of dough, the sense of manly capability he exudes. But the key word here is, I think, capability. It's mainly because Hollywood is so evidently good at what he does that people find him sexy. Skill is attractive. This is important. It's not Hollywood's pre-existing sex appeal that has propelled him to the heights of TV stardom. It's the fact that he really knows his way around a loaf of bread. His sexiness is bound up with that – of course it is – but it isn't the most important thing about him, despite what the Daily Mail, Radio Times et al would have us believe.
And in any case, there are plenty of examples of successful TV chefs for whom the epithet "sexy" is all but irrelevant. Hollywood's co-presenter on The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry, for example: a handsome woman, certainly, but by no means a sex symbol. Nigel Slater's TV programmes have proved tremendously popular recently: again, what did this have to do with sex? TV is a medium that has always favoured the good-looking, but in fact, I find it rather cheering that, when it comes to food, there has always been space for odd-looking specimens (the Hairy Bikers, Two Fat Ladies, even Gordon Ramsay) as well as the self-evidently fetching.
LC: I agree that there has to be an element of capability around these TV chefs. Sophie Dahl's cooking show never really took off, despite her beauty. A person has to know what they are doing; it's insulting otherwise. Hollywood comes from a long line of bakers; his father was a baker and he is a baker and that in itself is very attractive. Hollywood is the whole package. Berry gets away with it because, at her age, it would be downright weird if she was a sex symbol. She is the nation's lovely baking grandmother. But the truth is, if a baker had come on to television without the sex appeal of Hollywood he would not have made it. In fact, he would not have been allowed through the door. We seem to want something different from our TV chefs now – not just cooking prowess but a sense of something unthreateningly sexy, something we can, en masse, have a bonding sort of a crush on