Some people cannot cook. They burn breakfast so bad that you lose your lunch preemptively. When they cook dinner, you can only think of dessert-ing. Even the Rats Won't Touch It. Sometimes, if you're lucky, they can cook something that can be charitably described as "food."
Sometimes their food merely tastes bad. However, it has also been known to cause nausea, vomiting or hospitalization. If you're particularly unlucky, it can cause, well, just about anything. If dinner eats you, you're probably in a lethal chef's kitchen.
As you may have guessed, this is usually a comedy trope. In eastern media, most examples are female (emphasizing that they fail at an aspect of traditional femininity, or femininity in general, or that they're something of an Action Girl), but there are a ton of male examples in western media, probably tying in to the assumption that Men Can't Keep House and Dads Can't Cook.
There are a number of common variants. Sometimes someone is forced to stomach the lethal chef's food to avoid hurting their feelings. Sometimes they refuse to admit that they can't cook, despite mountains of evidence. And sometimes, if you're particularly lucky, their food merely looks bad, and tastes perfectly fine.
Lethal Chefs may be employees of a Lethal Eatery, and quite often can be found fixing up a stew of Mystery Meat. Most Camp Cooks fit this category. (Truth in Television for them, as their budgets and ingredients are limited.)
Compare the Cordon Bleugh Chef who can cook just fine, but often gets too creative, the One-Note Cook who can ace one dish, but otherwise falls into this trope, and the Evil Chef who just likes to see you suffer. See also Lethally Stupid when the character is so dumb it would be dangerous to let him cook. Contrast the Supreme Chef, who is the exact opposite of this trope, the Angry Chef who has nothing but contempt for his customers and peers, and the Chef of Iron, who can be either bad or good but is lethal outside of their cooking.
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- In a commercial for Pokémon cereal, a mom attempts to cook her kids breakfast based on Pokémon characters. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so, she ended up burning the food.
- An ancient Chinese story tells of a comatose general being saved from hunger by two beggars. The dish in itself was terrible (consisting of trampled spinach, rotten beancurd and unpotable water), but he didn't notice because he was semi-conscious, instead thinking it delicious. When he became emperor, he ordered said beggars to present said meal to his ministers. Afraid to lose face, they all gulped it down. The Emperor, realizing how horrible the dish was, still drank it all. The two beggars ended up rich.
- Spike Jones' "Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy" is told by a Tennessee mountaineer whose wife is one. At least when it comes to her biscuits.
- "Could kill a man twice after eating a slice of Miss Fogarty's Christmas cake."
- An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer:
- The mess sergeant from "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier":
Our old mess sergeant's taste buds had been shot off in the war
But his savory collations add to our espirit de corps
To think of all the marvelous ways
They're using plastics nowadays
It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier.
- In "She's My Girl", this is one of the girl's shortcomings:
So though for breakfast she makes coffee that tastes like shampoo,
I come home for dinner and get peanut butter stew,
Or if I'm in luck,
It's broiled hockey puck,
But, oh well, what the hell,
She's my girl,
And I love her.
- The mess sergeant from "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier":
- In America's Most Haunted, Julienne Sikes, former cook of the Old Prison, is implied to be one by the epitath on her tombstone.
- The Swedish Chef of The Muppet Show is generally a unique example of this (i.e. his cuisine is lethal to him), but he occasionally plays it straight- in one instance he went into cordon bleugh territory and made an onion cake; in another, he provided a quite literal example.
- Ma Gorg in Fraggle Rock, it seems. In one episode, she makes Junior a peach-and-garlic pie (which is just the way he likes it, apparently) but when he tries to eat it, it's like rubber, literally. Fortunately, the pie isn't wasted; later, when the Fraggles have to sneak into the Gorg's house, they're able to do so by using it like a trampoline
- In The Navy Lark Able Seaman "Fatso" Johnson's pies prove to be rather convincing as limpet mines, and less edible.
- The Goon Show: Moriarty.
Grytpype-Thynne: [sipping soup] Tell me, Moriarty...what is this foul but economical recipe?
Moriarty: It's a family secret!
Moriarty: They died after the first mouthful. It was terrible! I had to do all the washing up myself!
- In Cabin Pressure, Arthur consistently fails to cook edible food. At one point, he spectacularly fails at reheating frozen food. Unfortunately for everyone, he's usually the cook.
- Riders Radio Theater: Sidemeat's biscuits are the hardest substance known to man.
- Squee, from Magic: The Gathering. The look on Gerrard's face after eating Squee's food on the card Recycle is one of impressive shock and regret. The card Medicine Bag has even more to say on the subject:
"My medicine bag and I have treated countless wounds and illnesses. But never have I seen so many made so sick for so long. We will never eat Squee's cooking again."
- In Entropy Inc's Star Wars campaign, the title crew stole/refurbished a cooking droid. Unfortunately, everything it made tasted like bantha burger.
- This is the story behind the old Halfling Hot Pot Catapult in Warhammer. Halflings are normally Supreme Chefs, but once upon a time a team of Halfling cooks attached to an Empire army got caught up in an ambush by goblins. The plucky little cooks defended themselves with meat cleavers, but some goblin blood got in the stew, thoroughly ruining it. The head chef then snapped, dumped all the peppers and spices he had into the pot, looped ropes around the bubbling cauldron, had his team haul back on it, then fired the thing like a slingshot into the middle of the goblin horde. The resulting mixture not only scalded greenskins to death, it was strong enough to melt trolls! This ended up saving the day, and in subsequent campaigns many halfling cooks have contributed during battles with their own attempts at weaponized stew, though even the original chef never could quite remember what he put into that first batch.
- In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, we first meet Mrs. Lovett while she's telling Sweeney (and us) how awful her meat pies are ("The Worst Pies in London"). The song "God, That's Good!" subverts this trope, as it suggests that Mrs. Lovett is actually a pretty good cook, she just needs to buy high-quality ingredients (such as with the money taken from Pirelli's corpse).
- The entire plot of Nunsense is set into motion in the aftermath of Sister Julia, Child of God, having killed all but five of the Little Sisters of Hoboken with a tainted batch of vichyssoise soup.
- In Les Misérables, Thenardier uses horse kidneys and cat's livers to make the food he serves.