Against celebrity chefs.

By

'Don't like it!" my two-year-old pronounced over his bowl of homemade rice pudding the other day. This is the rice pudding into which I had (lovingly! painstakingly!) added hand-grated Vietnamese cinnamon and organic raisins. Budding food critic that he is, he reminded me of how a chef's life can be a total drag: Regardless of how delicious your concoction, your success depends entirely upon the whims of your diner's taste.

That's the way it used to be, at least. Now? Not so much. The level of fame that some chefs in this country have achieved has created a culture of intense reverse snobbery. A friend related that, instead of a hefty tip for good food and service, every time he leaves a restaurant these days he feels as if nothing less than falling to his knees and bending at the waist in the classic "we're not worthy" pose will do. Indeed, a recent story by Alex Witchel in The New York Times described a situation in which the author, having turned down a chef-offered tasting menu, felt snubbed herself: "Is it unreasonable, at least sometimes, to want to eat dinner instead of worshipping at the altar of the resident genius?" she asked.

I know just what she means. In the roughly 20 years that I've been observing, and ultimately writing about, food, I've had a front-row seat at a revolution. Twenty years ago, the Food Network did not exist. There was no "Emeril." (Emeril Lagasse was the executive chef at a popular restaurant in New Orleans.) Chefs were not considered rock stars; they were just the guys in the white jackets who made your dinner, and, unfortunately, they weren't particularly well-compensated for their efforts. I could count on one hand the number of truly noteworthy professional culinary institutions in this country. In fact, the most famous cook in the United States, Julia Child, was no restaurant chef at all--she was a cookbook author and a teacher.

Suffice it to say that times have changed. Culinary celebrities like Rachael Ray garner million-dollar book deals, Emeril is a bona fide brand, and the ShawGuides Guide to Cooking Schools reports that almost 500 accredited culinary institutions conduct classes in the United States. While I applaud the fact that it's now possible for chefs not only to emerge from the shadows of obscurity, but also to make decent money in the process, there has been a rather large downside to this phenomenon: A cult of personality has been created, and a chef's primary goal now seems to be media attention.

Of course, chefs have used their positions to advance themselves in society for a lot longer than 20 years. Perhaps not incidentally, most of history's top chefs have been genius self-promoters. Antonin Carême, the most famous of the nineteenth-century French chefs, started cooking in a tavern as an illiterate ten-year-old and died having written the definitive guide to the art of pastry and also cooked for Napoleon, Czar Alexander I, and Metternich (one must admire the way he never let his national feeling stand in the way of employment). Carême was notorious for playing to the society types he worked for, including both Talleyrand and James de Rothschild.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, another Frenchman, Auguste Escoffier, partnered with hotelier César Ritz to revolutionize the hotel business. In addition to creating a vast number of the dishes we now associate with haute cuisine, he was also the culinary world's first activist. Forget such headaches as rising Manhattan rents and procurement of organic grain-fed pork; chefs in this era were battling horribly low life expectancies due to their work conditions, including long hours in unventilated basements inhaling carbon monoxide from wood- and coal-burning ovens. Escoffier did much to improve these conditions, and, along the way, he also cultivated relationships with important celebrities--chiefly by naming dishes after them, as in the case of opera singer Dame Nellie Melba (the ice cream dessert "peach Melba") and composer Gioacchino Rossini (the luxurious beef tenderloin dish "tournedos Rossini").

One wonders what these European whisk-wielders would have thought of the man who was probably the first American chef with a household name: Hector Boiardi. In the 1930s, demand for the spaghetti sauce Boiardi served at his Cleveland restaurant, Il Giardino d'Italia, became so great that, by 1938, he was marketing the stuff with the phonetic spelling of his name: Boy-ar-dee.

It is too simple to say that chefs are inherently fameseekers, though. Take the example of Ferran Adrià, chef of El Bulli restaurant in Roses, on the Costa Brava, Catalonia. The chef's name has become synonymous with an experimental approach to food, specifically with the flavorful "foams" he created in the mid-'90s. Once discovered by the mainstream press, El Bulli, which is open only from April to September each year, became first a cult destination for foodies and then a kind of benchmark stop for arrivistes of all stripes. By his own admission, Adrià didn't seek to become famous when he began concocting his foams, and, indeed, how could he have possibly foreseen the ways in which the idea would be bastardized in restaurants all over the world? In the chef's defense, he could scarcely have chosen a more obscure location to showcase his food or opted to highlight a weirder phenomenon than infusing puffs of air with flavor. Adrià's fame came as a result of his style, not by his intention.

No, the problem is that the definition of what it means to be a chef has gotten lost in the floodlights. A couple of years ago, while reporting a story about a cooking contest in Sweden, I had the chance to meet a group of wildly talented--in the technical sense--Swedish chefs. They competed against each other like professional athletes do, training for months, engaging in vigorous physical workouts before cooking, shaving their heads in displays of team solidarity. They were the only people I'd ever seen who seemed to cook without much emotion but with tremendous drive. I asked the chef Marcus Samuelsson, a Swede who owns two restaurants in New York City, about this phenomenon: Why was it all about winning for these guys? He replied that once, very early in his career, the legendary French chef Alain Sailhac--now a dean at the French Culinary Institute whose resumé includes earning a four-star review from The New York Times for his cooking at Le Cygne restaurant in the late '70s--told him something powerful: A good chef has to love to serve. Samuelsson explained that, for all their drive and intensity, these Swedish chefs were nearly all from upper-middle-class families; they weren't trained in conditions in which caring about customers' reactions to their cooking was paramount, and, as a result, they approached their jobs like athletes instead of like craftspeople. The culture was about achievement, not service.

I think it's great that kids in America want to grow up to be chefs, but I also think Sailhac is right: Cooking is inherently a service profession. Good cooks care what their diners think, they care what their underlings think, and they care most about the quality of the food they put on the table. By definition, they are people who are the opposite of beyond reproach. Somewhere along the way, though, it seems that fame has become more important than catering to customers.

I asked Colman Andrews, one of the founders and the current editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine (and my former boss), about this. The problem, according to Andrews, is that "the culture of fame and celebrity" has invaded the kitchen. Nowadays, in culinary institutions around the country, students all say they want to have careers in food. The problem is that the career to which they specifically aspire is something that doesn't really exist: "television chef." "It reminds me of a friend I had who used to say that he wanted to be a saint. I told him I didn't think you could just become a saint: I'm pretty sure you have to have been something else first--a fisherman, a nun, you get the idea," Andrews says.

Can you blame these young guns for getting the wrong idea? Not if you've turned on the tube lately. Here's "Top Chef" on Bravo, in which wannabes compete for a $100,000 prize and a chance to appear in a feature story in Food & Wine magazine. Here's "The Next Food Network Star," whose finale airs on the Food Network this week, with amateurs vying for the chance to jump directly onto their own soundstages. And here's Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America," mounting kitchen counters with the same reckless abandon that rockers have when hurling their bodies into mosh pits, moving his arms to the ceiling in the raise-the-roof gesture demonstrated nightly by NBA showboaters like Vince Carter. These exuberant antics, which have nothing to do with the preparation of food, make it easy to forget that Flay was once a chef who actually cooked in a restaurant.

Flay is hardly the only chef who seems to relish stardom over stove time these days, and he's also far from the worst offender. Vying for that title is London chef Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay's credentials are by-the-book impressive: His eponymous flagship restaurant--he owns several in Britain--has earned three stars, the highest rating possible in an incredibly competitive market, from the Michelin Red Guide. Ramsay was already a TV star on his own shores, but then Fox aired his reality show competition, "Hell's Kitchen," last year. This was a perfect vehicle for Ramsay, highlighting his most famous accomplishment. Nope, not his food: his temper. Having risen through the ranks under the notoriously difficult-to-work-for British chef Marco Pierre White, Ramsay seemed intent on dishing out as much cruelty onto his underlings as was clearly heaped on him in his early days. A big blond brute of a former soccer player, Ramsay smashes what he deems inadequate dishes onto the fronts of chefs' jackets; he calls an overweight chef an "overgrown muffin" and a group of noisy female diners "bimbos." The "f" word is used so frequently that, back on his native turf, Ramsay has actually just premiered an entire new series called just that--"The 'F' Word." So much for decorum, but who cares? Ramsay is a household name in a country where he doesn't even own a restaurant.

The me-me-me madness is obviously antithetical to the idea of a service profession; additionally, it's the opposite of what "cooking on television" started out as. Take a look at Julia Child's set kitchen, which was donated in its entirety to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in 2001 and is on permanent exhibition. Child's kitchen is not only a replica of a typical American home kitchen circa 1962, when her first program, "The French Chef," aired. The 14-by-20-foot room really was its star's own Cambridge, Massachusetts, cooking space--it has a junk drawer and a countertop telephone, and the stove is what Child called her "big Garland"--a used, six-burner restaurant stove bought for $429 in 1956. Today's chefs cook on sets decorated with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment including $20,000 ice-cream makers; Emeril even has his own house funk band. Child had guests on her show like the famed French chef Jacques Pepin; Emeril has guests on his show like the famed Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

The truth here, though, is that aping a rock star, or even just hanging out with one, isn't the only goal. Andrews points out that, beyond the seeming appeal of TV stardom, young chefs want a chance to exercise intellectual pretension. To wit, Andrews has saved an explanatory note he received enclosed in a box of new-wave chocolates (the kind filled with things like green pea and nutmeg ganache): "We are part of a growing group of international chefs that view science and psychology as an integral part of a modern food experience. This scientific approach is based on a new discipline called Molecular Gastronomy or the application of scientific principles and techniques for the understanding and improvements of small-scale artisan food production. … We highly value the cognitive or brain based aspect of eating and perceiving food through multi-sensory stimulation, especially with intense flavors and powerful aromas," it reads. "Well, excuse me for just, you know, throwing a steak on the grill or something," Andrews says.

Amen. Dinner in a lot of "destination restaurants" in the United States these days feels a lot less like a birthday or anniversary splurge and a lot more like a job interview. Diners used to think restaurants were lucky to get their business; now they feel as if they have to tote around culinary resumés to prove they're good enough to occupy the tables ("eaten at the French Laundry two times in the past year and at Nobu eight times in the last five, including the London outpost"). Those of us who don't like it? Well, we probably aren't worthy.

 

Kelly Alexander is a consulting editor for Saveur magazine and the author of an upcoming book on the food journalist Clementine Paddleford.

This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.

 

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