Monday, November 24, 2008

When is a celebrity chef too much of a celebrity?

November 24

I created a bit of hubbub a couple of weeks ago, when I restated my dislike for Top Chef or, more accurately, since I don’t watch the show, my dislike for its fans — or more accurately still, since I have many friends who are fans and respect many others who are fans, some of its fans who have helped to bring the art of sycophantic idol worship and groupie-ism to the world of chefs.
I said it was bad for the restaurant industry, because it takes the focus away from the food.
New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni suggested I was being “a tad too grumpy.”
I was definitely being grumpy, and really the main point of that blog entry was not to criticize Top Chef but to offer a link to an interview I did of Jamie Lauren, a contestant in the current season, in case her fans wanted to read it.
And Top Chef’s not the only chef-related show that takes the focus away from the food. Hell’s Kitchen has introduced Gordon Ramsay to the mainstream world, but not as one of this planet’s greatest chefs, a reputation he enjoys within the snooty food world to which I belong, but as one with an extreme potty mouth. I’m sure many of the other food shows contribute to this as well, and in a way maybe they have to: Food is the only art form that uses all five senses, and television can only convey two of them. Unlike reality shows looking at other art forms — fashion in Project Runway, for example — the viewers of food shows can’t really have informed opinions about what the contestants are creating.
I've spoken to a bunch of people about the celebrity chef phenomenon, and about Top Chef. Some people defend the show, some say “I don’t like it either.”
But of course I can’t legitimately say I don't like it because I don’t watch it. I watch the throngs of glazed-eyed fans at food events hoping that Sam Talbot will raise his arms high enough that they’ll see his exposed belly. I know that when I hear and read people discuss the show, they don’t discuss the food, they talk about what a bitch Lisa is. The fact that I know about Lisa but not about her food illustrates my point.
“What about Perilla? Perilla’s good for the restaurant industry,” someone insisted a couple of nights ago.
Yes, I had a good meal at Howard Dieterle’s West Village restaurant, and his performance on Top Chef no-doubt helped make that restaurant happen.
Great, and I would never deny that Top Chef is good for the people who participate in it. But one restaurant (or even several — certainly I wish all of the Top Chef alumni who have opened restaurants all the success in the world) doesn’t make up for changing the tenor of dialogue in the restaurant world.
For years chefs have complained that kids coming out of cooking school think they’re ready to be the next Bobby Flay rather than to start training to be a line cook, and Frank Bruni said Top Chef could add fuel to that fire. Frank’s a better writer than I am, so I’ll just quote what he said: ”The show is yet another promise to young cooks that they can use, and should see, the role of chef as a road to celebrity. It gets them thinking more about mass-media glory — about big, quick fame — than about disciplined professionalism, dedication, sacrifice.”
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has taken umbrage at that, saying that the show is, in fact, a tough competition. I’m sure it is, but surely it can’t compare to the years, or decades, that chefs generally put into foodservice to really succeed.
I spoke to Iron Chef Cat Cora about this last week. She was in town promoting a new line of Simplot side dishes called Upsides. There she is on the right, doing a cooking demonstration with them.
She said that it was important to manage the expectations of culinary students. "I try really hard to stress that to a lot of teens,” she said, and pointed out that even the ones lucky enough to get on a reality TV show might not come across that well.
“There are instances when it can work well, but some kids go on reality shows and get beat up ... It’s rare that you’re going to be a megastar.”
If nothing else, you better have a Plan B, she said.
But maybe my whining is all for naught. After all, Americans are certainly getting more interested in food.
On the other hand, at some point in human history, actors were not celebrities. They were court jesters, traveling minstrels, Passion play performing missionaries. Now, actors seem to be the most important figures in the lives of many people who don’t even know them. Entire magazines, television shows, gossip columns and blogs are devoted to tracking their every movement. They get paid huge sums of money not just to appear in movies or on television, but to show up at parties or car dealership openings or whatever.
For the celebrity actors, I guess that’s great. It’s certainly lucrative, and if they didn’t want the fame they could be like Johnny Depp or Keanu Reeves and stay out of the public eye when they're not acting.
But since actors have become famous, has acting become better? Has the art itself improved?
I’m just asking.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you've zeroed in on the basic problem. It's not with celebrity chefs per se, it's with the whole celebrity phenomenon. What is wrong with a society so obsessed with fairly ordinary people whose main reason for being famous is that they have a good publicist?

Mark said...

Interesting article. I have worked as a chef for over 25 years and I really enjoy the show. Yes, it does have some participants that are total egotistical douchebags, but that is no different than work situations that I have encountered over the years. For me, the fun in watching the show, is that it makes me think about the food and the cooking. What would I make in that challenge? What menu would I create with those given ingredients? What would I do to win any particular challenge? Not that I would care to be on the show, It does make me think as a contestant when I watch it. As a seasoned 50 something I have never had a problem with the egos of culinary grads. I have no problem making them tourne case after case of artichokes as I did when I was learning. Also, I do find that a lot of the kids coming out of school are pretty serious about what they are doing and want to learn. Many, like myself, are dedicated to quality food rather than celebrity, especially if the price of fame and money means flogging processed institutional crap like Cat Cora is doing with Simplot.

Anonymous said...

why would he quote cat cora? she is a total nobody, non-celebrity, not even a real chef. just a tv hack that the food network added so they could have a female iron chef.

i worked with tom colicchio and he is amazing, the show top chef sucks. i have personally worked with four of the contestants and they are all terrible terrible cooks. real chefs can't go on tv because they have real jobs.

Bret Thorn said...

Thanks for your thoughts Mark, and thanks for linking to this blog entry.
I don’t know if I’ve ever explained why, exactly, I don’t watch Top Chef. It’s because I have trouble watching reality TV generally, as I really can’t stand watching people be humiliated, and because I don’t watch much food TV, because when I watch TV I want to turn off my brain, and if the topic’s food, I feel like I have to pay more attention than I really want to.
So I don’t watch Iron Chef, either, but I’m not sure why you and anonymous commenter #2 feel a need to pick on Cat Cora, who has many years’ experience working in restaurants and who told me she was working with Simplot on Upsides because she likes the product line. I think she’s doing well enough for herself that she doesn’t need to work with things she doesn’t believe in, and at any rate I don’t see a need to doubt her word out-of-hand.
And she’s enough of a celebrity that my nine-year-old nephew knows who she is. That’s pretty good.

Freelance Writer said...

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Thanks

Leah

ps. You write as many celeb chef posts as you like ;)

viagra online said...

when you ask this I think in many chefs that are more celebrety tham chef, for example all the people that appear in the different shows like America's Test Kitchen.