Who Is the Winking Chef?

Back in 2013, I wrote a book called Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box. Wired Magazine referred to it as “…an intensely researched love song to [pizza boxes]” and the New York Times called it “…delightful and informative.” OK, enough plugging…. on to the important stuff. Even though most of the book is filled with captioned pictures of some of the world’s most interesting pizza boxes, I sprinkled bits of info that dig deeper into the world of printed cardboard. I touched on structural engineering and visual design – two subjects I personally know very little about but am deeply interested in because of their connection to my beloved pizza box. 

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One of my goals was to uncover the origin of the ubiquitous Winking Chef. We’ve all seen him – the chubby mustachioed man wearing a chef’s hat and often making a gesture of approval with his hand. I dug around as much as I could – searching old magazines and websites looking for the origin of the image. Of course generic chef images go way back in print advertising but I was looking for one image in particular, the one I grew up with on my pizza boxes in New Jersey. Who was this guy? Was the image based on a real person? What’s the deal????

I know what you’re thinking. This chef isn’t even winking! WHAT GIVES? The image above is apparently a modification of a pre-existing chef face that’s been bouncing around the clip art world for over half a century. The box from Sam’s (above) seems to have to major modifications from the one from Sal’s (below). Sam’s chef has a right eye (Sal’s is winking) and it also has sideburns (Sal’s does not). Printers clean up their art all the time when they have to make fresh printing plates so it’s not a big deal for modifications like these to pop up from time to time.  

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But there’s still the question about the identity of the face on the box and the artist who drew it. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but a major clue eluded me during my search when I wrote Viva La Pizza

On a pizza tour last month, we stopped by J&V Pizzeria in Bensonhurst for their cheesy and pillowy Sicilian pizza. The staff there know I collect pizza boxes and were excited to show me a new one that just came in. Slice shops like J&V use paperboard boxes printed with stock graphics rather than custom images, so they never no what art is coming in next. I took one look at the “new box” and yawned because it’s one of the most common images I’ve seen. Just another chef. I was sure I’d seen it a million times and already added it to the collection. 

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We were riding back to Manhattan at the end of the tour when I noticed a name in the lower right hand corner of the box. It was a signature. Whoa. I usually notice artist signatures on pizza boxes because they’re super rare but for some reason this one had eluded me. Maybe it wasn’t on other versions I had seen. Maybe I hadn’t even seen this box before. My mind started to reel. Was this the clue I had been looking for? 

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Someone on the tour looked up Gill Fox and found that he was a famous comic artist and two-time Pulitzer prize nominee! According to Gil Fox’s obituary, “Examples of his line drawing and advertising illustration include the chef, winking and making an OK sign, who was nearly ubiquitous on pizza boxes in the 1980s.” WHOA!!! HOW DID I MISS THIS???? So we know that this man Gill Fox drew this particular chef, and that he was an illustrator around the time pizza was becoming big in America, but major questions remain. The obituary describes Mr. Fox’s chef image “winking and making the OK sign,” but the J&V box doesn’t exhibit either trait. Was this image modified from an earlier version? Are there other Gill Fox chefs floating around? 

I did a bit more digging and found an amazing interview with Mr. Fox by another comic artist named Jim Amash. I contacted Jim and he had some great insight into the chef image. I’ll quote directly from our correspondence:

“Gill drew that for a clip art service in the early 1950s. As a gag, he drew it in the style of his friend and comics/ad artist Creig Flessel, who worked for Johnstone & Cushing, where Gill worked, too. All of Creig’s friends were in on the gag, and razzed Flessel about moonlighting from J&C. Flessel denied he drew it, but the fellas all said they knew his style, and that they knew he did it. Finally, Gill confessed to the drawing it to Flessel, who realized all the guys were just having fun with him about it. Unfortunately, Gill didn’t tell me the name of the company he drew it for… or if he did, I don’t remember the name. I really don’t think he told me. 

As for the basis of the face, Gill did use photographs in ad art as did most everybody, but I strongly suspect that he came up with this face from his own imagination. The pose and gesture is too cartooned to have come from a model, and by that time, Gill had been a working artist since the mid-1930s, so he likely invented the face.”

Pretty awesome! There’s still more of the story to be told, but this is some good headway. I’m still looking for the chef from the Sam’s box, but that one’s a bit more elusive. I will report back with new info as I get it. 

And as for the gesture the chef often makes with his hand, I found a cool reference to it from the second century AD Golden Ass, by Apuleius:

Multi denique civium et advenae copiosi, quos eximii spectaculi rumor studiosa celebritate congregabat, inaccessae formositatis admiratione stupidi et admoventes oribus suis dexteram primore digito in erectum pollicem residente ut ipsam prorsus deam Venerem religiosis <venerabantur> adorationibus. (Golden Ass, 4.28)

“Many of the citizens and plenty of visitors whom the rumor of an outstanding spectacle had gathered with crowded curiosity, would be stupefied in admiration of her unapproachable beauty. Moving a right hand to their mouths with the forefinger resting on an outstretched thumb, they revered her as though she were Venus herself in religious adoration.”

So when you see that gesture on a pizza box, or in real life, it’s a sign of approval that compares the pizza to a beautiful Goddess. I’m cool with that! Big thanks to Uncomely Broken for posting that juicy insight!

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