No surprise—there’s a lot of hoopla about celebrity chefs these days. They’re deified and defiled, honored and skewered, loved and loathed. And I am as ambivalent about the culinary stars as anybody. On the one hand, I take it as an inevitability that Americans are attracted to the celebritizing of anything, so why not food? And perhaps our collective interest in Jaime, Bobby and Nigella is a positive sign that we’re living in a culture that’s becoming increasingly aware of what we’re eating, where it comes from, and who’s feeding us. This is good. But, perhaps when chefs become rock stars (or at least faun over them—what is up with that Mario/Michel Stipe relationship…?) the line between attracting attention and promoting quality food lives for all is irreparably skewed for the worse.
A few mornings ago, tea in hand and scores of emails to read, an article from SmartMoney.com caught my eye with the title, “10 Things Celebrity Chefs Won’t Tell You.” Unremarkably, this list includes:
“I’m a celebrity first and a chef second.”
“My show is one long commercial for my cookbooks.”
“The dishes I make on TV don’t always work so great at home…,” etc.
What chefs are saying a lot of, at least on TV these days, includes:
“Where’s my fucking raddichio?!”
That’s right. As The Times pointed out, chefs on TV are beginning to look like a group of hip alcoholics whose passion for food is matched only by explosive tempers and devotion to colorful expletives hurled at subordinates (Gordon Ramsey), fellow cooks (Top Chef contestants), and God (Anthony Bourdain). So, is this the reality of professional kitchens everywhere, laid bare by pioneering executives and probing cameras at Bravo and Fox, or the result of pushy TV producers manufacturing drama in their shows by upping the temper factor and the cocktails? Obviously, the answer is: both. But, the fact is, food fights have been a natural draw for television because chefs are notoriously rageful, potty-mouthed control freaks in their kitchens, whether they have a multi-book publishing deal with Random House or not.
Of course the food personalities on television aren’t all chefs anymore, and this further complicates the fusion of food and celebrity. On Top Chef, there’s no denying Padma’s got the food lingo down and demonstrates some legitimate culinary passion, but obviously, it’s not hurting Bravo’s ratings that she’s so fucking hot. Since sex sells, we’ve got Padma’s pout, Giada’s boobs and Rachael’s tight jeans everywhere: TV, glossy cookbooks, mags, websites, blogs, frozen food cartons, even dish towels. And I’m not complaining; who am I to blow against the hot and heavy winds of change? If it takes cleavage and shiny hair to make cooking cool, I’m all for it. A chef needn’t look like Julia Child to be accomplished–Sara Barron, who loves ‘em bald and wielding a sauté pan, isn’t complaining about Tom Colicchio receiving attention as one of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” for 2007.
So what’s the balance for serious, food-forward folks, in taking influence from food celebrities: must we stick with the trained professionals such as Sarah Moulton, Mario, even Emeril (now a phenomenally monetized brand, since being “sold” to Martha Stewart Omnimedia for $50 million!; sexy money, not a sexy man) or embrace the self-made food forces—the Ina Gartners and Paula Deans of the industry?
I guess we all have to find our own path. Read it, watch it, test it out, eat it up…embrace the best of both worlds and become your own culinary guide. Personally, I can’t listen to Rachael say “YUM-O,” withoutlosing my appetite. I’ll NEVER master a baking recipe of Martha’s despite the fact that I’m a wonderful baker, as I’m convinced she leaves out ingredients and some crucial steps. I won’t even try to attempt a 30-minute meal (I don’t like frozen produce and the vino I drink has a tendency to slow down my process…) And mastering the grill the way Bobby Flay does isn’t a top priority as long as I live in Manhattan with only a fire escape for “outside space” (though truth be told, I am tempted to fire up Erin’s Weber on my rooftop this summer–totally illegal I know, but how can I resist a slow-roasted porchetta cooked over an open flame? And more to the point, how can my Italian resist me with wafts of cracklins in the air?)
Ultimately, the celebrities will shift and fade. But food will always captivate. Whatever tastes good will last with foodies and whatever sells best will perpetuate popular demand; I guess the balance will eventually tell us where we stand. Perhaps, one day there will be something “trendier” on the horizon than food in entertainment, but as it stands right now, it’s hot—profanity and Giada’s tits included—and I’m lovin’ it.