Dianne tackles the recent subject of two bloggers who reviewed restaurants and then subsequently were cruelly blasted through commenting on their blogs, Twitter, and on the phone by the chefs.
Pete Wells wrote a brilliant snarky tongue-in-cheek review of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in Times Square, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. I heart Guy. I’m a sucker for his “Diner, Drive-ins, and Dives” show as much as the next person. I enjoy his cooking shows, too.
But there’s something about this wave of celebrity chefs that concerns me. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means, but what happens to the food that they’re supposed to be known for? Somewhere, things seem to get lost in translation. According to many of the critiques of Guy’s restaurants, it’s not the American food he claims he loves. It’s more dinner for the dog (this is from reading reviews – I’ve not experienced his food from the restaurants myself). Is this because he’s not actually cooking it? He has too many restaurants to oversee the quality? He wants to sell his name, make booko bucks, and who gives a rat’s ass about the taste of the food? Are we really all suckers for a tourist trap? Are we that gullible and unaware of what tastes good?
I don’t think so. We’re living in the age of foodies. There’s more food bloggers than the Internet knows what to do with (including myself). Food photography is the next ‘hot job.’ Every week, a new deli/restaurant/cafe/organic/all-natural/locally-sourced/take your pick place is opening on the corner.
The Braiser interviewed Anthony Bourdain in May. The first question they ask Bourdain is what does he think of the celebrity chef phenomenon and what does he think has spurred it. Here’s Bourdain’s answer:
Well, I think to a great extent, it’s a personality driven phenomenon. But I think the underlying engine is that we’re a new country growing up and catching up with those great parts of Europe, Latin America, and Asia, where food always was, you know, the social experience. We may seem food-obsessed now — possibly because there’s so much silliness associated with this rapid explosion of interest, and you know all of the seven deadly sins are all too apparent in this phenomenon — but what we’re really doing is that, in a very short period of time, we’ve gone from a country where we really didn’t think much about food, didn’t care where it came from, and didn’t care much about chefs, and now we think about it more and more — the way your average Vietnamese, Spaniard, and Italian has looked at food for a very long time.
Like any culture new to something, it’s a little awkward, a little dysfunctional. It’s a little out of proportion at times, but beneath it all, there’s never been a better time to eat in America.
I believe it’s true. America has exploded with food variety. I’m losing count of the cooking shows on TV, the magazines highlighting unique chefs and what they’re doing, different cultures and their foods, and more. It’s a bit orgasmic. Don’t even get me started on the food truck craze. But what makes a ‘celebrity chef’? Good question.
Bourdain’s answer is basic, as it should be. To him, the word ‘chef’ means “nothing more than a cook who leads other cooks.” So a Celebrity chef, according to Bourdain, presumes that “you’re either currently running a kitchen, like a working, commercial kitchen, or you did recently, or at least for many years at some point in your life.” Point taken. Just because you make food on TV, you are not a chef. I also think you have to add the criteria that most chefs are actually trained – not just through schooling, but through menial and laborious kitchen jobs, working their way up the food chain until they are running their own kitchen. There is a different quality to someone like that, and a different quality to their food.
Bourdain berates the Food Network every time he takes a breath, but he also admits that there are some quality chefs (albeit very few) who he thinks has sold out to “the big corporation” or are making a successful go at being on TV while creating mind-blowing food. While I don’t fully agree with his viewpoint that those on the Food Network or Cooking Channel have sold out, I do agree that many of them just don’t seem all that special.
Paula Deen isn’t a chef and I don’t find much special about her food. It’s the same food I grew up with from my grandmother – calorie, cholestorol, and fat-laden. No need for me to beat the diabetic drum. Neither is Rachel Ray. She annoys me and I refuse to watch her TV shows, but makes killer burgers. Sandra Lee doesn’t even come close to being a chef. She’s more like mom blogger turned TV persona. Not saying it’s a bad thing, if you’re into that.
Let’s talk about the few rare icons who are actually creating delicious food. Take Emeril Lagasse. His food is sharp and succulent. But his TV persona is a bumbling, inarticulate guy who shouts BAM! too much. Somehow, he succeeds in winning audiences and he’s considered a Celebrity Chef. Or look at Mario Batali (a personal favorite). A rotund man with his balding hair in a ponytail, wears cargo shorts, and waddles around in neon orange Crocs, who creates the most luxurious and delectable Italian food. He’s down-to-earth, snide, and sarcastic, and all I want to do is hug him. Anytime I see him on TV, he seems out of place and uncomfortable.
Harold Dietle from Season One of Top Chef is out making a name for himself and it doesn’t rely on being on television. He rolled out of that show and started opening really good restaurants. He’s still in the kitchen working hard, using the minute post-fame of the show to bolster the publicity of his stellar food. He’s a working chef who has got a lot of respect independent of the fact he was on Top Chef. Where are the other guys? Are they working now? Do they even have restaurants? That’s what separates the chefs from the television personalities. That’s what makes a Celebrity chef, in my opinion.
Look at the original bad boy of the chef world, Marco Pierre White. Considered the first Celebrity chef, he was dubbed the enfant terrible of the UK restaurant scene and the Godfather of modern cooking. He is as bad-ass as they can get, but his food lifted you to another dimension.
It goes to show that a chef can become famous solely for their food without having to do press ops such as television, book deals, etc. or be perky, lovable, mind-numbingly cardboard cut-outs. Although a little fluffing for the cameras once in awhile doesn’t hurt.
And you don’t have to be a wise-cracking, bad-ass either. Just make really damn good food. Or as Bourdain puts it more eloquently:
I honestly believe that a desire to cook at all, but specifically a desire to cook well, to excel, to feed other people, is really and truly a noble calling. It is rarely a high art, but I think it is a good and noble thing, a good and noble calling, and I think it is, generally speaking, wherever you are in the world, no coincidence that it is done by good people.