The Magazine

Bam!

Making sense of America's celebrity-chef culture.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

At almost any given hour on any given day, a food show is being aired on your television. It could be a reality-based series in which very qualified executive and sous-chefs compete for $100,000, or a reality-based series in which mildly talented cooks vie for the prize of their own cooking show, or a reality-based series in which miscellaneous contestants, including a nanny and a cook for a retirement home, are browbeaten by a tyrannical English chef until a winner emerges who will be invited to run a restaurant in Las Vegas. But chances are, at this very moment, the show you will find devoted to food is on the Food Network, a channel now available in more than 90 million homes. And the person you are most likely to see on this network is a woman named Rachael Domenica Ray.

Ray, who turns 39 this month, is the host of not one, not two, but five shows, one of which is Inside Dish with Rachael Ray. On a recent episode, the host spent time with the actress Raven Symone, learning how the young star likes to prepare quick and easy meals such as baked ziti and salad. Later Raven's friend Joelle showed up and everyone had a ball. (That's so Raven!) But Ray is also the author of more than 10 books and has her own magazine, Every Day with Rachael Ray. She sells food and kitchenware (try the Füri two-knife set--they're "super-duper grippy!"). She also does ads for Dunkin' Donuts.

Some see Rachael Ray as the greatest TV cook since Julia Child. Others view her as the embodiment of all that is wrong with our food culture today and, as another celebrity chef put it, "closer to Paris Hilton than to Julia Child as someone who is famous for just being there." Either way, Rachael Ray is one of the most successful, powerful, and influential food celebrities in the country today--quite an accomplishment for someone who insists she is not a chef.

And she is not alone. If you happen to miss Rachael Ray, odds are you will see one of her home-cook colleagues like Paula Deen, Sandra Lee, or, if you are lucky, the sultry Giada De Laurentiis (granddaughter of Dino) on Giada in Paradise, which sounds more appropriate for late-night Cinemax than the Food Network. Or perhaps you will learn something useful from Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa. And of course there are the legions of professional chefs who have become TV celebrities: Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Alton Brown, Masaharu Morimoto, Jamie Oliver, and Anthony Bourdain. Not to mention arguably the most influential chef of all time, Emeril Lagasse.

How did we get from Julia Child and Jacques Pépin to the more than 30 celebchefs now featured at the local bookstore? What was the turning point and who caused it? What of the impact of this celebrity chef culture on future generations of culinary school students? Won't they all want to skip restaurant work and demand their own shows? In short, have we gone completely and irrevocably insane over food and the people who make it?

The new convergence of our food culture and our entertainment/media/leisure cultures can be traced to November 23, 1993--the day the Food Network was launched. The brainchild of Reese Schonfeld, co-creator of CNN, the network would at first be seen by a mere 6.5 million subscribers. Most of the early shows were cooking demonstrations ("dump and stir," in the trade lingo) and included hosts Robin Leach, David Rosengarten, and the future ex-Mrs. Rudy Giuliani, Donna Hanover. Then came an ambitious 34-year-old chef, Emeril Lagasse.

Originally from Fall River, Massachusetts, Lagasse became the executive chef of Commander's Palace in New Orleans at age 23. With his explosive temper, he legendarily fired 7 of 13 line cooks in one night. Then it dawned on Lagasse to "leave my ego at home" and "bring my professionalism and talent to work," which led to his getting discovered while doing a cooking demonstration in Nashville.

One of Lagasse's early shows on the Food Network, How to Boil Water, was a bit of a snoozer--the camera crew would doze off while filming it, prompting Lagasse to occasionally yell, "Bam!" But then came Essence of Emeril and, more important, Emeril Live in 1997, fulfilling the chef's dream of combining a cooking show with elements of Jay Leno. The show had a raucous studio audience and even a band--no one had seen anything like it. Soon the network received its first-ever Nielsen rating.