Saturday, October 22, 2011

Becoming a Celebrity Chef

I watch a LOT of cooking television, so Mario and Gordon and Morimoto-san and Bobby, and all those folks are regulars in my house. I've learned almost nothing from them (Alton Brown, however...)  but I've often wondered about their path to greatness. Not just to great chef-hood, but to becoming celebrity. And for those of you watching the popcorn pop on this blog... rest assured, this is a continuation of the series.

Somewhere in England. Or New York. Or Toyko. Somewhere, a young man starts cooking. Presumably he gets a job as a prep cook in some giant kitchen. He moves his way up from that kitchen to a fancier kitchen and to support more and more respected and rated chefs. Somewhere in there, he may or may not go to culinary school. On the side, he is playing with avocado foams in his home kitchen. But, he's still working within the system, slowly making his way up.

At some point, he becomes right hand man to a big guy somewhere, who decided to cultivate him to taking the helm. At this point, his avocado foam experiments start becoming part of the menu (since he has the right to infuse). An opportunity appears, and he leaps to the head-chef gig at another restaurant, able to imprint his own brand of food through complete menu control. "Foamy: Flavor without Fat"  He aerates everything and a movement of skinny gourmets flock to his restaurant.

Then, having made a success of his first restaurant, which is no small feat, he expands to a second and third. They are all in-theme. The next is called Fired Ice, in which hot things are served cold and ice cream is boiled. Gourmets applaud. Our chef is recognized as a star among all the culinary glitterati. Of course, I still haven't heard of him, because I couldn't identify a Michelin star if it smacked me on the noggin.

Then the leap. Maybe he does a cookbook. Or maybe he gets a call from the food network. Or the chairman at Iron Chef. But, somehow, our chef is given a chance to become a celebrity. Naturally, he takes it.

Somewhere along the line here, he goes from line cook, chopping his own scallions and cursing about the knives, to being a prima donna. He wont make appearances without a bodyguard. He wont be chopping anything anymore. His chef's apron is made of 500 thread count egyptian cotton.

I'm here to tell you - that happens overnight. And I have a theory:

a) To get the most longevity out of being a celebrity chef, you have to delay this as long as possible.
b) Being actively in the kitchen is the source of all your inspiration - and your minions help. You are dependent on that experience for new ideas - that keep you fresh.
c) Those who cross over are jumping the shark - their time is limited.

Why? Because a chef is not Paris Hilton. A chef is known for his functional brilliance and innovation. He's a food inventor. Once you stop inventing, actively, you're not an inventor. Paris Hilton is a vacuous socialite. Her entourage and diva-ness IS her brilliance. Celebrity is her job. 

You can become famous for what you do. But, if fame becomes what you do - you're no longer doing anything.


PD said...

that is true for so many people who forget that talent, not being who they are, brought them where they are

Rob S. said...

It's true that these people are no longer innovating, generating new products, etc., but I'd disagree that they're not 'doing' anything--instead of continuing as purveyors of products, they become purveyors of taste. How many Americans now think they know something about evaluating singers since Simon Cowell has spent umpteen years on American Idol instead of focusing on producing hit records? Probably a lot. Have their musical tastes been shaped because of that? Possibly...but that might not necessarily be the point.

There's a certain class of celebrity that people look to for critical judgment to sort out the otherwise undifferentiated stream of new 'stuff' being produced in our arts & entertainment culture (c.f. Ebert, Roger). These people may or may not be the 'best' critics, but their visibility gives them broad influence over taste.

Because of the way reality shows work, judges become a kind of absolute authority in that context--they're mysterious, in that they seem to know more than we do (why else would they be judges, after all?), but they're also strangely accessible sitting there on TV. The thing about American Idol is that while the studio audience loves to hate Cowell, the TV audience secretly respects his detachment (because they, too, are removed from the immediate scene of the performance). He seems reliable for that reason, a kind of anchor to Paula Abdul's cloudy and repetitive expressions of encouragement.

Even if we don't end up buying the new Idol record, or getting to eat that crazy sushi dish, we still feel somewhat validated through our sense of connection with the celebrity judge, and develop a series of mental shortcuts for performing similar evaluations of our own experience. Taste and judgment are powerfully social, and using celebrity to beam it into our living room gives such people as high a degree of influence as you could expect. But maybe 'purveyor of taste' isn't quite the right phrase after all--perhaps they're more like highly specialized consumer therapists, sent to validate and/or correct our power of choice and product judgment.

If given the choice, I'd rather have many more innovators than celebrity judges. But without the judges, we might lack a certain kind of moral confidence in the "rightness" of our choices--even if that's because we aspire to have the exact opposite taste of the judge in question, we still are given a guidepost by which to translate our choices into the part of our identities they represent.

Lilac - Like The Flower said...

That's an interesting perspective, Rob... I will begin evaluating the celebrity chefs in my world with the same metric and see how it goes.

I suspect, however, that they are more Paula than Simon...