The meaning of celebrity

(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.

14 thoughts on “The meaning of celebrity

  1. You’re definitely on to something here, but isn’t the reason there was ever a distinct name for “celebrity chef” versus actors, musicians, and athletes, is that while those professions have always been famous (at least in this age of celebrity), the famous (TV) chef is a relatively recent phenomenon?

  2. robert,
    you’re right. for most of history until the early 1990s very few chefs were even recognized, and once they were, we needed a way to distinguish those few who were receiving attention. the problem is that that’s now become the goal. the goal for so many seems to be the recognition part rather than the excellence of the work part. rocco’s the extreme example of what the result is.

  3. I have to mention that Angelyne jumped to mind when you asked if there was anyone famous just for being famous. Residents, former residents, or frequent visitors to Los Angeles know that Angelyne is a famous blond bombshell who became famous for basically nothing. It’s perfect LA pop culture. She got famous from driving around in a pink corvette and had billboards occasionally appear of her but was never really an actress or model or famous guy’s girlfriend or anything. So I guess she’s the true “celebrity celebrity.” So there’s your interesting trivia for the day.

  4. You’re definately hitting on something I’ve been hearing for a while. At what point do you stop being a chef and roll over into celebrity status ready to do a spot on Hollywood Squares? When does hawking toothpaste keep you from creating the food and dining experiences that made you famous to begin with?
    As for Cat Cora, look at her Food Network bio for a list of which restaurants she’s worked at.

  5. Mr. Ruhlman,
    Because it is journalists/media who have “made” celebrity chefs, I am intrigued by your cause and your point? Inside of kitchens we cooks have our heros and heroines, the way every field does. But the media? They need one or two go-to’s. A few handsome experts and a sprinkling of female eye candy or sturdy masculine females to raise high for all of the public to see and speak of.
    Capitalism churns out celebrities in every field. We all need the new thing to buy, to consume, to chase after, to emulate.
    What I find distaseful and disturbing is that it is the field that suffers. Culinary schools reap the benefits of “celebrity chef” making, and kitchens are filled with thousands and thousands of under-qualified, delusional cooks who think their parent’s money or their outrageous loans are going to be easily justified by working in a “famous” kitchen!
    I’m glad I have a real, hard earned work ethic and career. Those chefs who remain my heros are not created by the media, are not “brands,” are not chosen for me. No thank you, I like people who are three dimensional.

  6. Shuna,
    You’re right. It is the media that first romanticized the chef and then brought him/her into celebrity for better and for worse. My point is, and i think this is what i’ve been trying to do in all my books, is to see The Chef cleary for what it is. To appreciate it when it’s great (Masa, Melissa, Grant) and to look at it clearly when its less than great (when the chef becomes a brand).
    I think finally people are realizing that the chef is not personally fussing over their food, and that the chef is not getting up at 4 am to go to the fish market and wiping down the counters at 1 am after working the service.
    I’m less worried about the “thousands of underqualified, delusional cooks”–they’ll select themselves out of the field because the work is too hard and the money is too little that they would only stay in the field if were true cooks.
    Thanks for the good comment, good to see your blog, and thanks for that long ago–do you remember?–insistance that i read jane grigson, which i did. It remains good advice.

  7. An FYI on the Wikipedia question. Basically, anyone can post an entry on any subject in Wikipedia or edit any entry already posted on Wikipedia. The company I work for (a theatrical drapery manufacturer) has posted several entries on Wikipedia on the subject of stage drapery and related topics.
    So, for example, you could post your own enyclopedia entry on yourself, Michael. This explains why Juliette Roussant has an entry (she or someone else posted it) and others such as Page and Dornenberg (and yourself) do not.

  8. I do not feel sorry for “celebrity chefs”, whats to lament? They get paid massive bux (or thats the story) and they CHOOSE to step away from the line, period.
    I am not a cook or chef, I am a scientist. You dont see much gnashing of teeth for “celebrity scientists”. People choose to step away from the bench for all sorts of reasons, if its to make a television series on science, major kudos, you are bringing the “good news” about Science’s advance to a wider audience. You are no less a scientist (and if you are a “celebrity” you still get publishing credits which is what defines a “real” “working” scientist – think Hawking, Steven Jay Gould, Sagan).
    What is the essence of a chef? A cook?
    We admire chefs and cooks because they are the alchemists of the mundane.
    They work with what looks like a boring potato in the store and transform it into something you want to eat again and again – sparking our tastebuds, entertaining our minds; all relatively guiltfree nurturing entertainment.
    This is a valuable and valued activity.
    It can be an experience that is conveyed literally as when you sit at the table in the restaurant or through a cookbook or TV show. Many people prefer the secondary derivative nature of these media to going out to eat because they LIKE to cook and would rather walk with the chef and create the food “together” (Americans have been exquisitely trained over the years to conflate TV experience with reality so who is to say that watching Emeril Live is not an honestly interactive experience for some of the at-home audience?)
    By no means am I into celebrity. (I know iT DOESNT If I were I would be into Rachel Ray. Not even close, in this life time or any other.
    I am into Bourdain because he is an interesting character. Its a literary thing. He is my foodie replacement for HS Thompson (still not over that loss). I measure him not by some frites he served back in 1984 that I never ate but by the way he expresses his thouhts on food, our place on the food chain, his personal views on all manner of bits, nasty and otherwise. He is not a hack, ripping off HST, he adds to the neo-gonzo foodite ethic and its a fun thing to behold. His last paragraph in his “Nasty Bits” piece on Vegas (and also in the taped version) is seminal.
    But I can also appreciate the visual non-verbal aspects of what a chef does, it doesnt all have to be verbal mastery.
    Without “celebrity” I would not have access to Bourdain and Adria and others that bring original voices (verbal, visual, and conceptual) to the table we set for ourselves.

  9. (sorry about a bit of the last post that doesnt make sense, I lost connection) It should read –
    By no means am I into celebrity. (I know it doesnt matter what I think), if I were I would be into Rachel Ray. Not even close, in this life time or any other.

  10. “a bit of a marketing effort from the camp of Ms. Rossant?”
    That’s a bit catty of you, Michael: too much professional jealousy.

  11. Looks like you have received a worthy reply:
    Michael Ruhlman Frumps Wikipedia on Juliette Rossant’s SUPERCHEFBLOG.
    This is a fantastic site: thank you for bringing it to your readers’ attention.

  12. So, if you create link in your article (above) to one of your own books, Reach of a Chef, that’s somehow magically not self-promotion? Come on, Michael: where do you draw the line? I smell double standards wafting out of your kitchen……

  13. I don’t think so, anonymous, because the source is clear. it’s not clear in the wikipedia entry. or in your comment for that matter.
    and for the record, I LIKE the super chef blog.

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