Jamie Oliver does it. David Chang and Christina Tosi do it. Giada De Laurentiis and Emeril Lagasse don’t know what to do with their hands, but they’ve done it. It seems like every chef gets their whites on, sharpens their knives, and suddenly feels the need to cross their arms for photo ops.
Chefs didn’t invent this pose. You’ll find arms crossed on C-suite executives, politicians, and anyone who warrants a professional headshot. But it seems to be a particular affliction in the culinary industry. Picking up on the trope, Shutterstock has more than 50 pages of stock images of chefs smiling, smirking, and glowering with arms crossed. Which is such a waste considering there are so many excellent options for what to do with your hands in a kitchen setting, where props abound: Grab a giant fish, set a skillet ablaze, or nestle your favorite knives between your knuckles like you’re pretending to be Wolverine.
So why are all the chefs crossing their arms? To get to the bottom of this rash of jumbled limbs, I called in the experts, starting with portrait photographer Melanie Dunea, who has snapped the likes of Anthony Bourdain (including the iconic bone shot) and Thomas Keller. Dunea chalks up the look to self defense.
“It is a reflex that probably comes from self-protection and creating some distance between you and the camera. When a big, black camera lens is pointing 12 inches from your face, it feels intimidating,” she explains. Aren’t we all just nervous kids on class picture day?
But the stance also communicates something less savory to the viewer. Mark Bowden, expert in human behavior and body language, explains the pose lends an aura of arrogance (which might be right on the money for some chefs, but they should probably do their best to hide it). It also sends a signal to kitchen staff.
“The modern trope pose echoes the language of the professional kitchen: aggressive and military. [There are] orders, firing, brigades, and chefs [with] sharp steel in hand,” Bowden says. He explains that “famously aggressive leader” chef Marco Pierre White was the posterboy for this look, and Gordon Ramsay is also guilty as charged. Crossed arms fit with the tough guy act both chefs tried to promote in the past. (White is also a fan of planting his arms like he’s preparing to use the counter as a pommel horse.)
“The crossed arms gesture suggests big upper body strength, a barrier you can’t get past. [It’s] no doubt a traditional military idea of the leader you have to be when the heat is on,” Bowden says. “It’s a non-verbal gesture that screams, ‘I am armed and dangerous. Don’t cross me.’”
That look might have flown when raw power over kitchen staff was the highest achievement for a chef. But as many restaurants have flattened their organizational structures and rethought relationships between managers and workers, it’s time for our photo ops to shift too.
Daniel Neuhaus, a Toronto-based photographer, says that many of the chefs he works with are keenly aware they need to avoid last season’s look. They just need a little help.
“I’ll usually do the portraits near the end of the shoot after I’ve observed them for a while, so I have a good sense of who they are and what types of actions they naturally tend to do. And then I’ll ask them to reenact that,” Neuhaus says. So, do what you love, love what you do — or just bring in the props. “If the restaurant is architecturally significant, then I like the background to show off the architecture. If the restaurant utilizes interesting culinary techniques (like lots of fire or a unique apparatus), then the portrait may show them using this,” Neuhaus adds.
Human limbs are inherently dangly and awkward, especially when you’re standing in front of a camera with nowhere to hide. The impulse to cross said limbs, to literally take your unfortunate hands out of the picture, worms its way into your psyche. Before you know it, you look like Mr. Clean.
But, chefs, there’s no need to look so cross in your headshots. (See what I did there?) You’re not a bouncer or a Fortune 500 CEO or Gordon Ramsay circa Kitchen Nightmares. Open yourself up physically to the camera, your staff, and your customers. And if you’re having trouble coming up with an alternate pose, I have just two words for you: jazz hands.
Tiffany Leigh is a BIPOC freelance journalist with degrees in communications and business. Additionally, she has a culinary background and is the recipient of the Clay Triplette James Beard Foundation scholarship. She has reported on travel, food and drink, beauty, wellness, and fashion for publications such as VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Business Insider, Dwell, Fashion Magazine, Elle (US), Departures, Travel + Leisure, Vogue (US), Food & Wine Magazine, Bon Appetit, Shape Magazine, USA TODAY, and many more.