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.