The gesture known as a ‘chef’s kiss’ can now be found in the dictionary. Here’s the somewhat unsavory story behind it.
Merriam-Webster recently added nearly 700 words to the dictionary. Among them was the term “chef’s kiss.” I can’t imagine anyone not having seen the gesture, even if most people never thought of a name for it.
It defines the term this way:
a gesture of satisfaction or approval made by kissing the fingertips of one hand and then spreading the fingers with an outward motion
Think about a time when you saw the gesture. Chances are you saw it from a fictional character. I suspect chances are even better that character was an ethnic stereotype.
When I think of the gesture, I tend to think of it coming from a French chef. But over at Daily Dot, Jay Hathaway tells us it’s actually an Italian stereotype. (I have to say that when I was a kid, we knew of a small, cozy Italian restaurant operated by a genuine Italian man named Luigi. I never once saw him or anyone in his family make the gesture. But if there were ever a plate of lasagne deserving of such a reaction of perfection, it was unquestionably his.)
“‘This is perfection,’ the gesture says—sometimes sarcastically,” Hathaway writes. As an internet meme, it’s the perfect reaction to anything that’s really good or shockingly bad.
‘As good as a kiss’
In Italy, the gesture was inspired by the phrase al bacio, which Hathaway tells us means “‘delicious’ or, more literally, ‘as good as a kiss.'”
But it came from an Post-World War II “ethnic caricature of the Italian chef as portrayed on American pizza boxes and pasta sauce labels.” He quotes a paper written in the 1960s that describes the marketing of Kraft Foods spaghetti that included “a cartoon mustachioed chef, recognizably ‘Italian.'”
If you find yourself the recipient of a chef’s kiss, think before you feel too flattered. YourDictionary.com points out that while it could easily be praise, it could also be a response of pure snark:
The term has become popular on social media and message boards as a way to compliment someone’s excellent post or comment, or to make fun of a stupendously off-base post or comment.
It even offers a few scenarios to suggest how you might tell the difference between a chef’s kiss used as a cheer or a jeer.
Should you use the gesture since it was based on a stereotype? I think you have to decide whether that’s right, especially knowing its history.
On the other hand, the gesture has become global and doesn’t seem to target any ethnic group. Instead, it seems to be more about expressing approval or disapproval, depending on the moment.
Good luck deciphering and identifying the snark!