Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chef Endorsements

Is There a Responsibility?

A statement I had made concerning “Iron Chef Cat Cora, contained in a comment on a blog article by Bret Thorn of Nations Restaurant News, drew this response from him:

“I’m not sure why you and anonymous commenter #2 feel a need to pick on Cat Cora, who has many years’ experience working in restaurants and who told me she was working with Simplot on Upsides because she likes the product line. I think she’s doing well enough for herself that she doesn’t need to work with things she doesn’t believe in, and at any rate I don’t see a need to doubt her word out-of-hand.
And she’s enough of a celebrity that my nine-year-old nephew knows who she is. That’s pretty good.”

In my comment I had stated:
“Many, like myself, are dedicated to quality food rather than celebrity, especially if the price of fame and money means flogging processed institutional crap like Cat Cora is doing with Simplot.”

This got me thinking about chefs endorsing products. Guy Fieri and Applebee’s, why not? He has a show called Diners, drive-ins and dives, it’s not as if he’s being contradictory, and it’s not as though he’s a chef associated with quality food. But, on the other hand, it’s endorsements like his, along with Rachel Ray shilling for Dunkin’ Donuts, that send the wrong message to children in this country, who are more susceptible to obesity and diabetes than ever, that the TV Chef that Mommy likes says it’s okay to eat this stuff. Yum-o!!!

I started looking at the History of Chef endorsements and the one of the earliest I could find, with real chefs, was a book titled “How Famous Chefs Use Marshmallows” from 1930. It is produced by the Campfire Marshmallow Company in order to illustrate how diverse their product is and how these professional Chefs, all of them European, use them to create wonderful gourmet haute cuisine. Life probably wasn’t that much simpler then when it came to getting by but I think that back then, people were less concerned with any of the moral and ethical quandaries concerning their daily bread.

I have no beef with Cat Cora and didn’t mean to come across as “picking on her”. She’s not breaking any laws, stealing from the poor or drowning kittens. I am sure she has worked hard to get where she is, and does do a lot of good through the philanthropic organizations that she works with. I do think though, that someone, who is touted as an “Iron Chef”, lauded by the media, looked upon by the general public as one of the leading Chefs in the country, might try to be more representative of the ideals and ethics of the Chefs who she proudly lists on her website as her mentors. Simplot, one of the world’s largest agribusinesses, inventor of the McDonald’s frozen French fry, operator of a 50 million dollar per year cattle feedlot business, manufacturer of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, every type of processed food product imaginable, is not the type of company that one of her mentors, Larry Forgione, the father of the farm-to-table restaurant movement would care to be associated with.

Through the writing and reporting from journalists such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan and Michael Ruhlman, people have formed more succinct opinions regarding huge conglomerates like Simplot. Most Chefs really don’t care all that much if their peers like them, or care if some 9 year old knows who they are. However, they generally do care whether or not their food and cooking is respected.


JacquelineC said...

I think the best/worst celebrity endorsement is Paula Deen and Smithfield uber-baddies. Talk about sellout! And she's supposed to be the girl next door - our best friend...

Just an interesting aside: Cat Cora and her partner have kids, wonder if her endorsements will change? I also read that she got her SAG card way before any shows. Had her sights fixed on this and is now capitalizing on it. Don't know how I feel about blind ambition.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment. I saw a quote from Paula Deen when confronted with accusations leveled at Smithfield her reply was "I've met the heads of Smithfield and have found them to have the highest ethical standards"It doesn't bother me in the way that an indorsement from someone that I respect and admire would. I don't think Cat Cora's ambition is blind, it seems pretty calculated. And that's okay. But with the access to information available these days, you would think a person would google up info about a company before signing on. If Cat was to open a restaurant she could not get away with, given her status as an Iron Chef, serving a product like Simplot Upsides.

Bret Thorn said...

I respect Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan (and I respect you, Mark). I haven’t read much by Michael Ruhlman, but people I respect respect him.
But Schlosser and Pollan definitely have political and social agendas that in my opinion color their reporting. And there are many sides to every story, so just because they don’t like one company or another doesn’t mean those companies are inherently evil, and it doesn’t mean they don’t come up with products that can cut the costs and (possibly) raise the quality of what’s being served in a restaurant. Perhaps not in a fine dining restaurant, but as you know the foodservice industry includes many outlets that serve a wide variety of customers with different tastes, desires and agendas.
I think there’s room for just about anything.

Andrea said...

Great post, Mark. Just found your blog and I love it. I'm a firm believer that you cannot separate politics from, well, pretty much anything. Not from art, not from culture and in this case, not from food. It's refreshing to see that you aren't.

gastroanthropologist said...

Mark - Found your blog through the Blogroll...I'm very much enjoying it! Thanks for raising these issues - and its not just celebrity endorsements we must debate. What about our political leaders who seem quite connected with companies like Monsanto? (Rumsfeld was CEO of pharma company Searle - acquired by Monsanto)

Holly said...

Great post. I could not agree with you more

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