Friday, December 12, 2008
The Chef Debate
Chefs, Celebrity Chefs, Top Chef and Public perception.
My father was a Chef. As a young child it was a minor source of social discomfort and embarrassment for me. Growing up in the early 1960's my friend's fathers all had professions that us kids were familiar with. Either through day to day interaction or portrayed in countless television shows and movies. The only time you would see a male chef on television was occasionally on the 3 Stooges, not a good example. The experience my peers had with people who cooked for a living was limited to contact with school cafeteria ladies or the women at the Woolworth's lunch counter. If children did get to go with their parents out to a fancy restaurant, the kitchen was a place of mystery behind closed doors. Women cooked, men barbecued. I knew different, I had been in my father's kitchen and visited his chef friends at work. There were certain days during the school year when a friend's father might come into our class and describe to us his profession. I was always relieved that my father was too busy to participate. Today, with the abundance of high profile male chefs, celebrated in every form of mass media, a child would feel different.
"If you got into this business to be the next Emeril, you should apologize to your parents for wasting their money." Tom Colicchio
Bret Thorn, the Editor at Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication, recently penned an article on his blog titled: "When is a Celebrity Chef too Much of a Celebrity?" The article was, in essence, more of a diatribe against the television show Top Chef than a dialogue regarding the role of celebrity Chefs today. Back in my father's time Chefs weren't really respected other than being in the kitchen. You rarely saw them in the dining room interacting with people. Now all of a sudden, people have started looking at chefs and saying, "Wow! That person really is a craftsman, is really a business person, they can do publicity, they can act". Some people do begrudge celebrity chefs their fame though. One major complaint is that some have too many restaurants and other ventures going on, so how can they be cooking for you? Even a Chef who is running a single restaurant, and is present every night, in most instances, will not be touching your food. If you bought a Karl Lagerfeld dress do you think that the great designer himself was hunched over the sewing machine making sure your seams were straight? In the majority of better restaurants the Executive Chef spends the brunt of his time administrating and hires well qualified people to execute, under his guidance and direction, the cuisine that he creates. Even then, it's still a life of long hours of hard work. So it should not be difficult to see why someone, who has spent many years working that hard, would want to trade kitchen time for P.R. work and travel, promoting themselves and their craft.
As for Top Chef, Mr. Thorn's beef was more with the fans of the show and the worry that it promotes egomania, fosters unrealistic expectations in culinary students and aspiring chefs and is detremental to the industry in general. He does admit that he doesn't watch the show though and his opinion is based on buzz and hype. In a New York Times article Frank Bruni commented that perhaps Mr. Thorn was being a little too grumpy. I have to agree. Rising to fame and fortune via reality TV is as likely as stumbling across a sack of money by the side of the road. I believe that most graduating culinary students are aware of that and have chosen culinary arts because they genuinely like food and cooking, even though some of them don't have the natural talent or aptitude to ever cook professionally. Yes, Top Chef does have some participants that are not likable, but that is no different than any other pursuit we might find ourselves in. What I like about the show is that it makes me think, as a chef, about the food and the cooking that is going on. What would I make in that challenge? What menu would I create with those given ingredients? What would I do to win any particular challenge? How could they screw that up? I wouldn't care to be on the show, but it does make me think as a contestant when I watch it. Mr Thorn, who I do respect as a writer, and someone who has a passion and love for the culinary arts, should give the show a chance and perhaps look at it as though he were a chef.