In the culinary world, there are some great mysteries that the lay-person knows nothing of. The Sous Vide machine, for example. My mother, I can guarantee, does not know what it is. But she has a microwave, and usually boils her water for tea in it every morning.
My father owns a bread machine. He loves it, and makes his own bread every week in it. But he likely doesn’t know about stack ovens and pizza ovens and the various sorts of gear that go with bread baking in a large scale establishment. He also doesn’t know what Baker’s Math is, but his loaves turn out wonderfully following a simple recipe they’ve honed in on over the years just by throwing ingredients together.
But what they both have in common is television, and often they watch cooking shows. Both watch Masterchef, and both know who Gordon Ramsay is (I think it would be difficult to find a person on the street who doesn’t recognize the name).
There are some secrets that the professional kitchen will always keep from the everyday diner, but some are out in the public, and one of those secrets is the most important part of the kitchen, the key to it all, the flagship.
I’m talking about the Chef.
Celebrity chefs have become a phenomena all their own. Entire channels are devoted to food television and gameshows trying to find the next celebrity chef. Most of the time, the winners of these shows fall by the wayside, but the course of the program will suck viewers in like a good/bad drug. Hell’s Kitchen, now 16 seasons long in the U.S., has captivated viewers with years of one of the world’s most renowned chef’s foul language and short temper, as well as painful cooking on the part of some cooks in the kitchen. We love to watch it, even though many of the shows aren’t educating us on what they’re making and how they’re doing it. There is something captivating about it, watching something being made in front of us that we are unlikely to make ourselves.
It’s been likened to pornography, the way it’s taken on a voyeuristic nature for the viewer (Rousseau, 2015).
But how did it all begin? When did we suddenly become so swept away by the idea of watching people cook on TV, and how do we do this when we don’t even get to eat what’s being made right in front of us? How did we come to accept the single sense of food on TV without Taste and Aroma being made available to us? Maybe it’s the Chef.
Celebrity chefs have been around longer than we realize. Even in the 19th century, the aristocracy in Europe would obsess over the creations of one chef by the name of Marie-Antoine Carême. But perhaps the person we all think of first is Julia Child, who had her own show The French Chef from 1963 to 1973 (The French Chef, 2017). But what happens after that? When did we become so obsessed with chefs?
I found an article online by Signe Rousseau on the advent of food television. She took note of the 1980’s, when the pursuit of lean body mass meant the sacrifice of health (in the form of eating disorders and drug abuse), as well as food. Food became a forbidden thing, but when food was on the television screen, it was “eaten up” (pun intended) by those watching (And we can imagine them doing this while on their treadmills or filling themselves with a diet food supplement). Here, we can see the phrase “Food Porn” being conceived. Eating wasn’t acceptable if you wanted to look a certain way, so relief came in the way of entertainment by professional chefs cooking right in front of us, but without the temptation to eat what was being made.
“It is a world marked by shame rather than pleasure, and often by solitude rather than companionship: a world where watching food is safer than consuming it.”
– Rousseau, 2015.
However, watching a cooking show doesn’t always leave a person satisfied (just as watching a pornographic film may not always leave a person happy either), and many viewers do pursue the act of cooking. This may be where celebrity comes into play. Maybe, after watching a particular chef on TV create a dish, the viewer now wants to know more from that chef, how that chef makes other dishes, and so on.
Wolfgang Puck may be another recognizable name. After releasing his first cook book in 1981, he opened his famous restaurant Spago, which remained in the same location for fifteen years with great success (This, of course, is not his only restaurant). He has appeared on television as a guest to many shows countless times, as a chef, gameshow judge or even as a cameo appearance (including an episode of CSI)(Wolfgang Puck, 2017).
This gets us into the 1990s. At this point, food channels are beginning to emerge, including The Food Network and eventually The Cooking Channel. These channels, of course, are made out of demand by viewers, who seem to be wanting more shows with more chefs and more variety. Up to this point, cooking shows would only appear sporadically on smaller network channels. I can remember watching a young Jamie Oliver on his first show The Naked Chef on the CBC, the show that would launch him into stardom. Not long later, the first episode of Hell’s Kitchen would air in the United Kingdom, with it’s American version starting a year later. Here, we would meet our most beloved chefs: Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre.
Pierre is largely regarded as the first “rockstar” celebrity chef. His rough and tough attitude and rudeness to customers, as well as the sometimes shocking stories told behind the scenes, lend to this image. Anthony Bourdain even supports this image, having commented himself on the air surrounding the chef being much akin to a typical rockstar (Von Pfetten, 2012).
Gordon Ramsay is perhaps the most well known name, with an empire of television and book series under his belt, as well as his own Youtube channels of cooking lessons, and a new online cooking series through the Masterclass program. He shows no end to his devotion to the food world, especially food entertainment. And, as with other types of celebrities, he tours the world, shaking hands and signing books and taking pictures, while stopping in at his restaurants every so often to check on things.
But what has this done to the industry?
In one sense, you can say that the kitchen has been illustrated to the public much more clearly. While there are countless cooking shows glamourizing it all, there are also those that show the dirty side of it. Kitchen Nightmares (Another show hosted by Ramsay) is a show where restaurants are exposed in their filthy and wasteful ways, through poor sanitation or bad managing. Many shows, including Hell’s Kitchen and Anthony Bourdain’s various series’ (No Reservations and The Layover as examples), also give brief glimpses into the kitchen while it’s at work, showing cooks running around performing tasks while meticulous chefs head the pass and discriminate against the unworthy dishes or poor quality of cooking. Between the heat, the sharp knives and the dagger of the chef’s words, the kitchen can still be an intimidating place.
On Netflix, the series Chef’s Table has also given a glimpse into the creation of the chef and their passion. While the show highly dramatizes the process and gives great beauty to it, it does give some hints to the difficulties of being a chef. Many chefs start out struggling to make ends meet, often going deep into debt, dealing with personal issues and sleepless nights just to succeed at their food endeavours. The stories in this series are particularly successful ones, but they are not unlike many in the kitchen that go unsung.
Celebrity Chefs can also be thanked for the return to the restaurant. Many viewers are now excited to go out searching for the next best restaurant (though this comes at the cost of cooking at home, as Michael Polan has noted (Chandler, 2016). A “Foodie” may watch numerous shows, follow their favourite chefs through book readings and Instagram, and consider themselves educated enough to go out to a restaurant and decide on how well the food was prepared and presented. The viewer has been inspired and encouraged to go out to these places, to pursue food again, and to be a food critic. The allure of beautiful food has become a force in society, and the many faces associated with it are now ambassadors for the foodie movement.
Is this a good thing? Anthony Bourdain thinks so.
In an interview, he shared his view that most celebrity chefs deserve such a title based on their skill, and not just how they “hustle” (Pfetten, 2012). He supports this idea by pointing out that the various personalities that have become famous through cooking are ones that would normally be unacceptable in most other careers. Surly and Profane are a couple of characteristics we get from this, but nonetheless, he makes a good point, and we can apply this to Bourdain himself: a chain smoker who openly admits to a history of drug abuse and heavy drinking, who swears as much as Gordon Ramsay, and is just as incredulous (even towards fellow chefs). Typically, some may find this personality type endearing, but certainly to a point. Celebrities with these traits in other careers (Film and TV are the obvious ones) are not considered the same way as chefs. Celebrities in various other domains are followed more or less to see how far they go, how badly they mess up, or if they get arrested for something. In the chef world, these traits are followed to see how high they rise, and what amazing beauty comes from their rough and tough hands and minds. Here, the personality is truly second to talent and production, with character only supporting the skills.
The idea of celebrity can take on other forms besides television series. As mentioned before, Gordon Ramsay has his own youtube channel where he posts various How-To’s and interviews and clips of shows. Various chefs are doing this, sharing recipes and pictures through Youtube, Instagram, their own Websites (where they even sell their own apparel and cooking gear, as in the case of Jamie Oliver), and, of course, books. It is no longer just the Michelin Star or the James Beard award that gets a chef recognition now, but the number of followers on their Instagram page, the number of books sold, or the number of viewers for their shows. And it can go both ways: one misstep, and a chef can go under. Noma, a well known Michelin star winner, had a dark period when they accidentally caused an outbreak of Norovirus. For a brief period, the news brought their dinership down when word of the outbreak spread like wildfire (Shilton, 2013). If the chef and restaurant (featured both on Chef’s Table and in their own documentary on Netflix) were not so famous, would news of the illness have gotten as widespread as it did? I doubt it. But it could also be argued that the fame of the chef is what saved the restaurant and allowed them a second chance. For this reason, it is likely that celebrity status in the chef world can help maintain a homeostasis of cooking and health standards in the real world’s restaurants. Certainly, no one will attend a restaurant known for being dirty or causing illness.
Celebrity chefs have also inspired a new generation of wannabe chefs. Enrolment in Culinary Schools across the world experienced a surge as viewers watched their favourite chefs and felt inspired top learn the tricks of the trade. The allure of celebrity status may be what brings many to culinary school, and regardless of their success, these self-proclaimed foodies gain experience (and perhaps some hard truths) that get them back into the kitchen and dreaming big. In some cases, the aspiring chefs do go on to create their own kingdom in an established successful restaurant or their own restaurant. Food television and famous chefs have recreated the restaurant market by bringing back diners, inspiring at-home-cooks to try their hand in the professional kitchen and culinary school, and by creating more business (despite the famous difficulty of keeping a restaurant going, countless numbers are opened every year in the hopes of beating the odds). Because of this, jobs in the kitchen are widespread and available to anyone to try, providing a great deal of opportunity.
And this is where I step in. All of these new opportunities allowed me to try my hand at it myself, and while I’ve learned many skills in culinary school, I can’t say they’re the first lessons I’ve had. Masterchef Australia taught me the value of rotating a roasted turkey to help the juices redistribute through the breast meat. Gordon Ramsay taught me how to roll meat out of a lobster’s leg, to scramble eggs, and many other small tasks. And, while he wasn’t famous for being a chef, it was a celebrity nonetheless that taught me how to dice an onion (That man, by the way, was Paul McCartney, in a Youtube video not long after his wife passed away of cancer).
I don’t have a TV now as an adult, but if I did, I would be satisfied to just have the Food Network, if only for the pure enjoyment of seeing what’s to be offered from the new faces I see on it all the time, as well as the familiar ones. I’ve come to love some of these personalities, and like many others new to the industry, I have been greatly inspired by celebrity chefs and the world of food television.
References and further reading
Abend, L. (2010, June 21). The Cult of the Celebrity Chef Goes Global. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1995844-1,00.html
Chandler, A. (2016, April 12). Michael Pollan and the Luxury of Time. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/04/michael-pollan-cooked-netflix/477618/
Rousseau, S. (2015, April 8). A Brief History of Food TV. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from https://www.madfeed.co/2015/mad-dispatches-a-brief-history-of-food-tv-and-its-influence-on-society/
Shilton, A. (2013, April 09). World’s top chef eats a little crow over Noma’s norovirus outbreak. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from https://www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2013/04/09/worlds_top_chef_eats_a_little_crow_over_nomas_norovirus_outbreak.html
Szymanski, R. (2016, January 24). Chef’s Table [Digital image]. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from https://rafal.io/posts/chefs-table.html
The French Chef. (2017, March 22). Retrieved April 02, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_French_Chef
Von Pfetten, V. (2012, June 11). Anthony Bourdain On Why The Best Celebrity Chefs Just ‘Don’t Give A F*ck’. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from http://www.mediaite.com/food/anthony-bourdain-celebrity-chefs/
Wolfgang Puck. (2017, March 26). Retrieved April 02, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Puck