I was reading a Bloomberg article today about the downfall of the celebrity chef restaurant. Call me a hater, say I’m jealous, accuse me of ill feelings toward those who have “made it” in the high-profile world of food peddling, but I will openly admit this is something that puts a smile on my face.
Of course, my disclaimer is I don’t wish anyone to lose a job, struggle to make ends meet or be the least bit unsuccessful. I love seeing success where it is warranted. The article dealt mainly with the numbers of these restaurants that have gone down the tubes over the past three years or so, and I can see why.
Aging restaurants have grown stale, rises in rent and expansion did in a few, lackluster reviews affected some celebs and even the #metoo movement had some effect on the lifespan of certain celeb-affiliated venues. There was, however, one thing the article didn’t mention: the bubble is bursting.
For better or worse, chefs have become the rock stars of our era. It’s celebrity for the sake of being famous, the pretty face, the smart hair, the tattoos, all about image and less about product. The trouble only begins there. Our real problem is that everyone who ever shared their 15 minutes on a cable TV show thinks their fame should carry them into a profitable series of restaurants that can be run from afar. It’s all too common, and we are watching that crumble.
Growing up, there were Julia Child, Paul Prudhomme, Justin Wilson and, yes, Mr. Food. Julia Child was the sex appeal, Prudhomme had the motorized scooter, Wilson could measure teaspoons in the palm of his hand and Mr. Food made us swoon with the catchphrase, “Ooh, it’s so good!” See where I’m going with this? This wasn’t slick, over-polished pop music from Nashville. This was unvarnished folk on an indie label. There wasn’t much sexy about it, but the food was great.
The dawn of the new food star came in the form of Emeril Lagasse. He deserved it. It looked like he worked hard for it and had the best single-syllable catchphrase ever uttered on television — “BAM!” I’ve eaten at his restaurants and have been very impressed. He was responsible for the success of the Food Network and marked the beginning of a renaissance for food celebrity. A Massachusetts transplanted Yankee, he shone the spotlight on the South, particularly New Orleans, as did Wilson and Prudhomme.
That’s the moment we saw how cool it could be to become a cook. It went downhill from there. Sure, we’ve had some gems like Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Mario Batali make it in the biz, all for completely different reasons, but for the most part the market became flooded with talent. I’m not saying the “celebrity” chefs we see on TV aren’t talented, I’m just saying when there are so many of them they don’t stand out.
Ingredients, techniques, cookware and informational avenues are far more advanced than they were 20 years ago. The modern chef is doing so much right now, but does that make it more special than watching Mr. Food at 7 a.m.? No, it doesn’t.
Culinary Institute of America grads are tearing it up right now, but guess who else is … the home cook. Easier than ever, a literate 30-something with a library card or an internet connection can crank out top-notch dishes with ease. Domestically we have upped our game in the Information Age, leaving the dozens of “celebrity chefs” in the awkward position of teaching us something we don’t already know.
Even the backstory for these stars is the same as for the amateur. “She began cooking at her grandmother’s side, sitting on a stool next to the counter peeling parboiled potatoes with a dull knife, taking in the secrets of a forgotten time when food was real and unprocessed.” Turns out I have that same stool.
When people talk to me about these chefs and say, “Oh, you know him, he was the season 4 winner of ‘Top Chef,’” I immediately tune out. I can’t keep up. I’m lucky to remember who won the Super Bowl. How long did you think these things would hold our interest? Mine, not long.
The late, great Anthony Bourdain’s programs often celebrated cooks who made their livings in rural communities slinging sustenance from the back of a yurt or an open flame at a village eatery. His celebrity was cutting edge, drawing attention to the unsung heroes of the world, a far cry from creating a star. That was something I could tune into.
We will always have celebrity chefs, but not everyone should get to hold that rank. To me it’s similar to the dot-com bubble that burst. Too many had gotten into the business for the wrong reason. It was less pure. Now we see far too many television chef stars to count, which by my definition makes them no stars at all.
While we’re at it, two other celebrities need to fade away: bacon and wine. Neither of these are religions. Quit treating them as such. I love them both, but I don’t have any clothing celebrating them. I don’t feel the need to post a meme about them to let you know where I stand. I drink too much and eat too much, so my position is clear. And I’m certain the more you express your love, the less you know about the subject. I’ve never met a sommelier with a “Wine Down Wednesday” or “Hakuna Moscato” T-shirt. Same goes for coffee.
If a purge is really happening, I welcome it. Get rid of the fly-by-night wannabes who are trying to be famous instead of honing their chops. Throw away 8-inch-tall hamburgers and bloody marys with slices of pizza and turkey legs affixed to the glass. It’s sideshow and as boring as deep-fried Oreos and yards of beer. Less hyperbole, less about image, more about your menu. Be a rock star by rocking your menu.