(by Michael Ruhlman, guest blogger)
So Bourdain is trapped in Lebanon. I learned about this via egullet which had this nypost page six item. I do regret he and his great zeropintzero crew are stranded and hope for their quick safe return (they all seemed to feel pretty safe—haven’t been able to reach Tony or Grillbitch by email or phone), but what stuck in my tooth a day after reading, was the “celebrity chef” tag. I’ve been thinking about this knee jerk response a lot recently. We’ve really got to get past this. It’s an embarrassment to the chefs and an unintentional embarrassment to anyone to whom it means something good.
What is a celebrity chef? They don’t cook anymore. They don’t expedite. They put on jackets for photo shoots. Their hands are soft and smooth, their wrists and forearms are unblemished. This is not a criticism (as for so many people it seems to be). Tony is the first to admit it. He worked hard in kitchens for half his life, managed also to write a really good book, and then he went on to a second career, lots more writing and good television shows.
Why do we have to use celebrity chef? We don’t call Wynton Marsalis the celebrity musician. We don’t refer to Annika Sorenstam as the celebrity golfer, we don’t say celebrity actor and we don’t say celebrity celebrity, though surely there are those, someone who’s famous only for being famous. As far as chefs go, are we calling them celebrity chefs to indicate they don’t cook anymore? We should consider this.
I write about chefs in the age of the “celebrity chef” in Reach of a Chef. And at the end of the book I sit down with Thomas Keller, a friend with whom I’ve collaborated on two cookbooks, and he said these surprising words: “I’m not a chef anymore, and it breaks my heart.”
This is one of America’s peculiar gifts: To embrace people so hard that they cease to be able to do the work that made them famous in the first place.
What exactly are the criteria for being a celebrity chef? Here’s the wikipedia definition (it’s heavily reliant on the work of Juliette Rossant, citing her–she even has her own wikipedia page; sadly I do not—as well as her book called Superchef and her blog of that name…interesting…I wonder why it doesn’t cite, say, the work of Page and Dornenberg who wrote Becoming a Chef, the first book that meaningfully addressed chefs as they moved into the realm of celebrity…hmmm, a bit of a marketing effort from the camp of Ms. Rossant?).
My favorite “celebrity chef” is Cat Cora who, when I was interviewing her for an article on chef branding told me point blank, and with refreshing candor, “It’s something I’ve wanted all my life. To have the fame. Without beating around the bush, that’s the bottom line.” And she’s succeeding—she’s never owned a restaurant or been its executive chef, I believe, though she did run a kitchen at one point and cooked in numerous high end places I’m sure (not a single restaurant is listed on her Wikipedia page)—but she’s famous, often on Regis, the only female iron chef, etc. Being a working chef was once a prerequisite for being a famous chef during the 1990s, but that’s changing. Now you don’t even need a restaurant. You need what they call in the branding biz “a platform.”
Of course, the most famous of the professional cooks got that way by being good on TV, which is the best kind of platform there is.
I think we, and especially the media, should make a clear distinction. A celebrity chef is a chef who no longer cooks (or maybe never did cook). If they’re still cooking, then their working title should be used. If they don’t cook anymore or are just famous for it, then they should be called a “celebrity chef”—that truly would mean something.