Friday, October 15, 2010

The Celebrity Chef Phenomenon

Although I have always loved to cook, for a long time I was convinced I never wanted to cook professionally. Similarly, the image of a chef in the general population was not the glamourous one it is now. About 30 years ago, chefs and the cooks who worked for them were very much on the margins of society. A person would find work in a kitchen if there was no other viable options in civilised society. A chef would be considered the captain of a band of pirates, nothing more.

Obviously, things have changed a great deal. One of the driving forces of this is food television, which created the persona of the Celebrity Chef. Of course there have been chefs on TV for years, going back to Julia Child. Julia, however, was more of an icon for home cooks. Her recipes were geared towards housewives, who were now able to attempt more sophisticated preparations with confidence. Many chefs also took inspiration from Julia, but her presence did not do much to glamourize cooking as a career choice. Cooking shows following Julia Child followed in a similar vein, gearing the recipes towards home cooks. At some point between then and the turn of the century, a transformation took place. There were more and more cooking shows on TV, some of them featuring chefs cooking recipes from their restaurants. This is not something that most home cooks would dare attempt. Around the same time, restaurant reviews would focus almost as much on the chef than the restaurant itself. More chefs were writing cookbooks, many of them oversized with big, glossy pictures, to showcase the intricate plating of their complicated dishes. With the writing came TV appearances, print articles and a general increase in visibility. What had happened is that the culinary arts had somehow become a glamourous occupation. Culinary schools filled with young aspiring chefs who a generation before would have considered kitchen work to be an abject embarrassment, and more schools were founded to accommodate the swelling ranks of the industry.

Is this phenomenon of celebrity chefs a good thing? Kind of a strange question, but I ask because I see both positive and negative effects of this trend. The obvious positive is that, as I love cooking, I am pleased to see more people interested in cooking and more esteem granted to cooking as a career. If I tell people I am a cook or a chef it is not a source of embarrassment. It also gives me TV programs I can enjoy, as I find a lot of what’s on TV unwatchable. On the other hand, these TV shows seem to have given a certain kind of glorified status to a chef that is not all that realistic. The celebrity chef you see on TV that owns the swanky restaurant portrays the image that he is the one cooking your filet and preparing the sauce for your special Saturday night meal. This is just not the case. If a chef has risen to the level that he has a media profile, chances are he does very little cooking any more, especially not during service. IF the chef is even on site, they will be checking the plates for quality as they go out or sitting up in an office doing things like designing menus, planning new ventures and media appearances. That is not to say that an executive chef that works in the office is not doing important work. Furthermore, many celebrity chefs have multiple locations, so chances are they are not even there on the night you are eating. Not quite the image they project in their books or TV shows.

Many cooking shows these days are going the direction of reality TV. If you are familiar with the show Top Chef, this is a very good example of this new trend. While it involves cooking, there is a lot of conflict, win-at-all-costs strategy, and “surprising” twists like Survivor, Big Brother and all those others. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know how I feel about reality shows (if not, check out my post from July 13, The New Freakshows ). Now I do like a very few of these shows, and Top Chef is probably my favourite. However, like any successful TV concept, the one good show has spawned several bad clones. With this emphasis on conflict and entertainment, chefs are becoming like Hollywood celebrities, some enjoying the media exposure more than what should be their true passion, cooking.

Back on the positive side, chefs becoming celebrities have led to an increased demand for books written by chefs, be they cookbooks or literary works. One day I think I might like to take advantage of this and write my own book. I don’t really ever expect to be a celebrity chef or any book I write to be a best seller, but I may be able to get a small piece for myself.

So are celebrity chefs a good thing? I would say yes. In addition to increased exposure for the culinary arts, it provides talented chefs to be “promoted” to a more elevated status as celebrity and culinary ambassador, allowing others an opportunity to be a chef when they may previously been stuck as a sous-chef or line cook. Also, it allows aging chefs to remain in the industry for their entire working lives. A chef’s job is very physically demanding. You are on your feet all day and can work upwards of 12 hours a day. You work until the wee hours of the morning every night, work every weekend and almost every holiday. The physical exertion takes a toll on the body and can accelerate the normal effects of age. A 50 - plus year-old chef may have trouble keeping up with a busy restaurant service, but TV appearances and book tours allows him to keep getting paid while still being involved in the culinary field.

So despite a few annoying aspects of the trend, I am enjoying the rise of the celebrity chef, which is interesting as ordinarily I do not much care for celebrities and wish they would just go away. Celebrity chefs, on the other hand, seem to actually have a positive impact on the world of food, or at least more positive than negative. Since I care about the culinary scene being viewed in a positive context, I am all for this.


A couple additional thoughts: Tomorrow is my birthday, so I have been thinking about everything that has happened the past year. In some ways it has been very difficult but there has been one thing that was very positive was my discovery of blogging. When I first came across Amar’s World, it inspired me and showed me a new way to look at who I am. I was able to admit openly to myself that I am gay, came out to my parents, and, finally, started this blog. I am very happy to have this little space of my own in a very friendly online community. Thank you to my readers here and also those who read my comments on other sites. Thank you also to my parents, who do read this blog. I really enjoy blogging and plan to continue for a long time to come.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Evan. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!! I am so glad to have a chance to view your blog. I have been trying to get here for a while. How wonderful to be able to come and wish you grand things for your special day.

    You mentioned looking back at the last year and thinking on thing. I hope you took a moment to say thank you to your self. Yes your self. I think you deserve to give your self a high five.

    Look in todays world it is hard to do the right thing, be a good person, find happiness and follow our dreams. Add on the other pressures of making a living, going to school, parents ( oh that is a big one ) friends and all the rest. So maybe it is no wonder we forget to just give our selves credit for being who we are. you have worked hard over the years to develop your personality, and that is a hard task. It takes years for most of us to find our selves.

    Be well, hugs and my very best wishes,