Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Battle of the Celebrity Chefs

I recently decided to conduct a poll. No, we’re not talking the reds versus blues- we don’t want to see the elephants battle the donkeys in the ring. And we’re not going to hit below the belt and ask whether you prefer Obama or Clinton.

No, we’re talking a much more political poll: who is your favorite celebrity chef? The goal is to find out the obvious- are people lovin’ the bam-happy Emeril Lagasse, are they head over heels for lesser-known hottie David Myers? Are you molecular-gastronomically gaga for Wylie Dufresne, do you rock the tantrum-prone narcissist Marco Pierre White, or are you putting down your utensils and throwin’ up your hands for Bravo sensation, the Craft-y Tom Colicchio?

Like it or not, TV chefs have greatly influenced the way we view the food industry. The celebrity chef of today can gain rock star status without even demonstrating veritable cheffing ability (ehem, Rachel Ray). Someone like Ms. Ray is a powerful celeb first, and a chef, or should I say cook, second. With celeb gossip-infused websites like,, and infiltrating the World Wide Web, it is no wonder we’ve placed these folks on an overly-enthusiastic pedestal. America has whipped up a recipe for a new breed of celebrity with its unapologetic obsession with all things famous along with its obsession with food.

Unlike the simple good-ol’-days, we live in a television-saturated world and our TV’s are studded with images of the rambunctious Gordon Ramsey and the grill-happy Bobby Flay.

Back in the day, we watched Julia Child on public television with twinkling stars in our eyes. At the time, Julia was one of a kind- fresh, unique, gratifying, and most of all, distinguished. Julia was the original food TV star and yet, she was so much more. She was a cultural icon, a woman of class with bona fide skills and we loved to watch her in action. Her methods were technical and truly informative. Many others followed suit and eventually, we wound up with TV chefs as the holy grail of the food industry.

Even well-trained professionals like Emeril, who I had the pleasure of meeting BEFORE he went nuts on TV, have gone the way of the marketing-maven. He has morphed from respected New Orleans chef into an international television star, product-pusher, and fame-whore. He has also become increasing macho and dummed down as his fame grows. Gone are the days of technique and food history. Present is a studio-audience so star-struck and vapid that they cheer with glee as he throws a handful of parsley into a stew.

On one hand, cooking has become more en vogue than ever and the industry has been glamorized and galvanized. It has brought high-end food to the masses, at least via electromagnetic waves. On the flip side, food TV is experiencing a major dumming down, with less focus on true talents like Sara Moulton, for example. Celebrity chefs themselves often eclipse the food they are making when the focus shifts from the art to the artist. It can be argued that this type of chef muddles the pond and dulls the industry. Cookbooks no longer feature images of silken pie, glazed roast chicken. Today, more often than not, cookbooks feature 15 inch glossies of famous faces. People are buying the books for the faces that grace the cover, rather than the food that studs the pages.

I was curious to calculate the effects of the celebrity chef had on the general public; this means my friends, of course. I wanted to know if they might prefer a neighborhood chef from their favorite corner bistro rather than those who appear on TV. Unfortunately, my suspicions were confirmed. I don’t claim to be above the influence of the Food Network, by the way. I often tune in to catch Ina Garten in her kitchen making crispy fish and chips or mixed berry pavlova. I also adore Top Chef.

I polled ten of my friends and family members. I asked a simple question: who is your favorite chef? I received answers like Alton Brown, Tom Colicchio, Anthony Bourdain, Dave Lieberman. One friend listed her significant other. And a few enjoyed lesser known gems- Roy Finnamore, author of One Potato, Two Potato and Ric Orlando, of New World Café in Saugerties, New York. Mr. Orlando did do time as a TV chef, but of the local variety, at WMHT in Albany.

I was truly surprised at how many prefer the chefs they see on television rather than those whose food they eat. But it proves my point- the celebrity chef has infiltrated our culinary society and has influenced the way we think about food. It seems celebrity chefs are taking over the world.


SaraPMcC said...

I love Top Chef, and I think Tom Colicchio is awesome. I thought Wylie was a little gross when he was on, though (he loves his sideburns!). It's true, celebrity chefs are taking over. At least they're getting people interested in what's in their food and appreciating quality ingredients, instead of getting fast food with scary unknown ingredients.

katherine said...

my number 1 is julia child, the original tv celebrity chef. after her, i love jamie oliver. i like watching him cook things from his garden while sitting on a bench--in his garden. :)

Anonymous said...

I would have to vote for Jamie Oliver - I made one of his risottos and it was so good. He inspires healthy local food cuisine...and he isn't afraid to cook vegetarian.