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Bam!

Making sense of America's celebrity-chef culture.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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But of course, Rachael Ray never passed herself off as a fine cook. It wasn't by winning the grand prize on a show like The Next Food Network Star that she rose to the top. As Michael Ruhlman notes in The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity, "Ray makes a big point of the fact that she's not a chef--which is true, but she has cooked in a restaurant, in addition to washing dishes, waiting tables, and tending bar." In Albany, working as a buyer for a gourmet store, Ray learned that most customers simply didn't have the time to prepare elaborate meals, which then led her to conduct cooking classes. When those classes sold out, Ray took the next step and wrote a book in 1998 entitled 30-Minute Meals. It sold 10,000 copies locally and earned her a check for $70,000 in its first year. NBC's Al Roker bought the book, and suddenly Rachael Ray was on the Today show (where Julia Child made her own television debut in 1961, using the studio's hot plate to make an omelet).

"We're very customer-oriented on these shows," Ray explained to Ruhlman. "We're there to make people at home feel good about themselves." The message seems to be resonating. In 2004, Ray's 30 Minute Meals beat Emeril Live for the first time in the ratings--it currently draws 750,000 viewers on weekdays and more than a million when re-aired on the weekend.

Contemplating the omnipresent Rachael Ray and Emeril Lagasse (the latter has 10 restaurants, 12 books, 2 shows, and numerous products like the "Emeril Kick It Up a Notch! Bar Towel Set"), it is tempting to view today's celebrity chef culture as unlike anything that has existed before. But looking back, one discovers that today's mass-market celebrity chefs have some obvious antecedents.

Chefs who cook for the wealthy and powerful have always enjoyed a certain fame, and they have always been ambitious. Antonin Carême--chef to Napoleon, Talleyrand, Tsar Alexander, the Rothschilds, and George IV of England--began publishing cookbooks in France in 1815. They featured a vast array of recipes and advice on presenting meals (plates should be hot, do not overload the table, dessert is a reward), all spiced with behind-the-scenes accounts of life among royalty. Carême--who is credited with inventing both the soufflé and the toque, the tall, white hat worn by chefs in the kitchen to this day--lived comfortably in Paris off his royalties long after failing health forced him out of the kitchen.

Even more ambitious was Auguste Escoffier, who in 1884 accepted the job of chef of the Grand Hôtel de Monte Carlo, managed by the upstart hotelier César Ritz. Escoffier was 38, Ritz was 34. The two would later run the Savoy in London, the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, and ultimately, in 1899, the Carlton, London's first hotel to have baths in all 300 guest rooms. The master chef oversaw the dining facilities aboard oceanliners, founded his own company, Escoffier's Food Preparation Syndicate Ltd., bottled his own sauces and pickles, entered the canning business, wrote numerous cookbooks, including the seminal Le Guide Culinaire with its 5,000 recipes, and even published his own magazine, Le Carnet d'Epicure (featuring himself in the first issue in 1911). Escoffier, who died in 1935, would most certainly have his own television show and maybe even a live band were he with us today.

More recently, Julia Child shunned product endorsements: "I just don't want to be in any way associated with commercialism (except for selling the book in a dignified way), and don't want to get into the realm of being a piece of property trotting about hither and yon," she once wrote. "The line is sometimes difficult to see, but I know where I mean to be." Her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was not published until 1961 (by Knopf) when Child was 49 years old. The advance was $750, and she had to pay for her own publicity tour. Nevertheless, Mastering the Art of French Cooking became a national bestseller, and Child's own show, The French Chef, would debut in 1963. Three years later, Child made the cover of Time magazine.

While Child was largely level-headed about the business, even she fell prey to excess on at least one occasion--her 1983 short-lived series Dinner at Julia's. According to biographer Laura Shapiro, "Julia looked grotesque, her hair frizzed and her makeup garish, dressed up in caftans and evening pajamas, or rigged out for a barbecue in jeans, a vest, and a purple ten-gallon hat. . . . The sumptuous mansion, the Rolls-Royce pulling up to the door." Letters written at the time expressed sentiments like "How could you?" and "We want you to be human."

Business prowess is not the only attribute of celebrity-chef culture that has venerable roots. So does the tradition of culinary apprenticeship as boot camp, where verbal--if not physical--assaults are routine. When Escoffier began working at the prestigious Petit Moulin Rouge in 1865, he was subjected to the tirades and blows of head chef Ulysse Rahaut. After Rahaut's retirement, Escoffier took over and was determined to reform the kitchen--banning alcohol during working hours and restraining himself from assaulting his assistants. At most, writes Kenneth James in Escoffier: The King of Chefs, "he pulled at an ear lobe with thumb and finger while rubbing his cheek," saying, "I am going out for a while, I can feel myself getting angry."

While kitchens are mostly less violent today, the spirit of Rahaut lingers. Last April, the New Yorker's Bill Buford profiled England's most famous chef, Gordon Ramsay, known both for his screaming sessions and his acclaimed food. "Once Ramsay allowed himself to get angry, he seemed to look around for other things to stay angry about," writes Buford, "as though something had been switched on that he couldn't control." In celebrity-chefdom, this temper was turned into an asset, as everyone knows who has seen Ramsay's reality series on Fox, Hell's Kitchen. Here, the chef must select one of 12 contestants to run a restaurant at the Green Valley Ranch resort in Las Vegas. The problem (much to the delight of producers) is that most of the cooks are barely qualified, leading Ramsay to explode on every episode. The chef grabs a contestant and yells in his ear, "You can't cook!" He slams an egg onto the chest of another cook. Ramsay has no qualms about repeatedly calling a female contestant a dumb blonde.

Ramsay himself apprenticed under another perfectionist chef in England, Marco Pierre White, and mentions to Buford "the excesses: the hours, the abuse, the weeping, spending the night on a dining-room banquette because there wasn't time to go home and be back for the morning prep."

Daniel Boulud, the four-star chef and restaurateur of Daniel, in New York, among other eateries, remembers being chased by a superior around the kitchen at knife-point. (The fight was broken up after Boulud ran through the dining room during service.) But what the chef and star of After Hours--the most sophisticated cooking show on television--also remembers is the hazing. As an apprentice in France, Boulud was tasked with buying ingredients for the head chef and was permitted to park his car in a prime spot, closer to the restaurant than his senior colleagues. On one occasion he had forgotten to roll up his windows, and when he returned at night, Boulud noticed his steering wheel and windshield were slathered in chocolate. Someone had also stuck fish guts beneath the hood, causing a rancid odor to emanate from his vents. (Boulud and a friend made sure to get everyone back.)

A more attractive, countervailing tradition that the food world has maintained through the years is charity. After the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, in which all but one of the ship's 32 cooks died, Escoffier raised money for the families of the kitchen staff. Likewise during the First World War, he cofounded the Comité de Secours aux Familles des Soldats Français and assured those on his staff who had gone to war that their jobs would be waiting for them.

"I think chefs all over the country are the biggest contributors [of their time] to raising money, for their community, for national or local causes," says Boulud, who spearheads numerous charities. "We are contributing with our talent. And these things earn respect from people for celebrity chefs." For Cook for the Cure, a fundraiser for breast cancer research and awareness, one woman donated $25,000 for a dinner cooked by Jacques Pépin at his Connecticut house. (She also purchased the signed menu for another $5,000.) And whether or not we like Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, or the Food Network, all are heavily involved in multiple charities and in support for U.S. troops. It is estimated that chefs help raise close to $100 million annually for various causes.

Whatever the chefs' good works outside the kitchen, any comparison with the culinary culture of the past points to one endangered legacy--the discipline of working at a single restaurant for an extended period. "I remember chefs at the restaurants where I apprenticed who had been doing the same thing for ten years and were perfect at it," writes Daniel Boulud in Letters to a Young Chef. "For any number of reasons, this career path is no longer possible. . . . You will feel tremendous pressure to move forward as your peers advance." Boulud urges the young cook to "concentrate on the needs of the chef for whom you are working." Of the 100 cooks working under him (he owns five restaurants), he estimates only half will stay longer than a year. "The rest move every year or so. In my opinion, their ego and ambition get in the way of their progress as a chef."

Jacques Pépin agrees. The culinary world's elder statesman and a dean at the French Culinary Institute in New York, he urges his students to become artisans and craftsmen. "You have to repeat, repeat, repeat so that it becomes so much a part of yourself that you don't have to think about it." The host of Fast Food My Way recalls talking to a first-year student at the New England Culinary Institute who had strong cooking disagreements with master chef Michel Bras. "Wait a minute," Pépin interrupted. "You've been here for three months and you don't know how to hold a knife, you don't know how to cut a tomato, you don't know how to chop parsley, and you're talking like you are on par with [Alain] Ducasse and all of those guys?"

The Food Network's executive chef Rob Bleifer is equally concerned about students' expectations. "They see all these celebrity show hosts," he says, "and they think, 'I can do that.' And some of it is, they don't know how to cook yet. . . . They don't have a culinary point of view, so they have no direction in it and, (a) there's an awful lot of competition to get a job in a restaurant, and (b) there's an awful lot of competition to get their face on camera and it's getting harder and harder."

Bobby Flay encounters the same attitude among students at the French Culinary Institute (where he won the Outstanding Graduate Award in 1993 and is currently a master instructor). The question he is asked most often is, "How do I get my own television show?" As he told Michael Ruhlman, this drives him nuts. Rather, he says, students should be asking, "How should I approach a chef? How do I get my foot in the door?"

Anyone with unrealistic expectations is in for a rude awakening. Ted Allen, a contributing editor to Esquire, food and wine expert on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and judge of several episodes of the compelling series Top Chef, points out that "that first job you get out of culinary school is going to pay you $10 an hour and you're going to be peeling onions." Observes Anthony Bourdain, "The whole system is designed to weed those people [with unrealistic expectations] out and break them quick. A few major disappointments, a couple of busy Saturday nights--they're gone."

It is those who survive this winnowing who will carry the culture forward. Indeed, there are more than a few aspiring chefs who seem genuinely committed to the art of cooking. One is Johnny Monis, just 28 years old, who is chef of the restaurant Komi in Washington. His tasting menu is expensive ($78; paired with wine, $155), but the feast is well worth it. On a recent evening, it included delicate oysters, softshell crabs, tender ox tail, foie gras baklava, and fleshy octopus--an almost Caligulan experience that lasted four hours. No surprise, the Washington Post awarded Komi three stars. In July, Monis appeared on the cover of Food & Wine as part of its "America's Best New Chefs" issue. It is just a matter of time before the Food Network starts calling.

And speaking of young chefs, Food & Wine recently held its Ultimate Kid Cook Contest. Grand prize winner Alexander Donowitz made a beet and cheddar risotto and hopes to open an Italian restaurant several years from now. Alexander is six years old.

In any case, morale at the best cooking schools is high. After my interview with Pépin, I followed him around the French Culinary Institute, in lower Manhattan, where midterm and final exams were getting under way. The kitchens were spotless and the students were intensely focused. This was not Hell's Kitchen. Whenever Pépin walked into a room, the place would light up. "This is awesome," said one student under his breath. Up and down staircases, the 71-year-old Pépin was excited to show off his school, and recent knee surgery didn't slow him down. Over lunch, Pépin, who once declined the job of head chef at the Kennedy White House to run the test kitchen of Howard Johnson, discussed an idea for a show involving cooking with stars like Sophia Loren. (No, I didn't have the heart to tell him about Inside Dish with Rachael Ray.)

No doubt contributing to high morale is the esteem in which the profession is now held. "A proud kitchen is a good kitchen," says Bourdain, "and just by virtue of raising the prestige of chefs and cooks, and of the profession, that's been a good thing for diners." Besides, "Nobody spits in the soup in kitchens anymore. That would be unthinkable." (Doubly so in the age of the "open kitchen" design, an innovation of Wolfgang Puck at Spago.)

When Pépin worked at New York's Le Pavillon in the early 1960s, he belonged to the dishwashers' union, Local 89. "The dishwashers, the cooks, everything was the same. On the social scale, we were quite low. . . . And any good mother would've wanted her child to marry a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, but certainly not a cook. But now we are geniuses, you see," he says with a laugh. His fellow Frenchman Daniel Boulud can sympathize: "When I got married, my wife came from a background [of] bankers and socialites and not at all from the field of hard work like the restaurant business. When my wife told her mother and her aunt that she was going to marry a chef, they said, 'What's going on?' She was marrying a domestic. And today she's proven to be pretty smart!"

Indeed, celebrity chefs are now more successful, if not wealthier, than many other professionals. Their reach is expansive--multiple restaurants, television shows, cookbooks, product endorsements. Where does it end? According to Michael Ruhlman, theoretically, it doesn't: "An unknown, talented chef creates an outstanding one-of-a-kind restaurant that is quickly recognized throughout the country by the press, its quality conveyed by word of mouth and the difficulty in getting a reservation. It becomes successful. The philosophy and quality of this flagship restaurant is the 'brand.' The chef then creates a midlevel fine-dining restaurant. . . . People go there because the brand is the same as the brand of the flagship, but the chef doesn't have to be there and, more to the point, isn't expected to be there. And, because the food and the environment at the establishment are not chef dependent, they can thus be replicated over and over again."

A variation on this process can be observed at Applebee's, a national chain ("Eatin' good in the neighborhood") that is attempting a kind of rebranding by association with the Food Network and its celebrity chef Tyler Florence. Though soon to be acquired by IHOP, Applebee's has just adopted a menu with three different pictures of Florence on the cover. The first two pages showcase the latest dishes, such as Tyler's New Yorker: a strip steak with a scoop of garlic butter, onion rings, and a hearts of romaine salad. "I'm sure Tyler Florence takes a lot of s-- for doing Applebee's commercials, but if you look at the food . . . it's pretty good," says Ted Allen. He's right.

At an Applebee's in Falls Church, Virginia, I ordered Tyler's New Yorker, which was perfectly fine for a chain. The butter definitely improved the flavor of the steak. The salad was actually more impressive. I asked my waitress, a high schooler named Katlyn, who Tyler Florence was. She replied, "He's the new chef we hired" to improve the menu. "He's on . . . CBS? The Food Channel?" Katlyn reported that Florence's new offerings are enormously popular. On the other hand, Applebee's earnings in the first quarter of this year are a third of what they were last year. In March the company closed 24 restaurants. Whether or not Tyler Florence and the Food Network (whose logo appears inside the menu) can save Applebee's remains to be seen.

The final component of this cultural phenomenon is the diner/viewer/consumer, who in the 1980s and '90s became increasingly obsessed with good food and the chefs who make it. Often this person is a single adult. "You live alone in an apartment or with a couple of friends, and there's a collective yearning for sitting around the table, having this sort of nuclear family that cooks," says Bourdain. "We started off with TV dinners with our families and then . . . moved to the big city, and the closest we get to that is kind of like this Sex in the City/Friends scenario where we huddle around coffee or go out to places for entertainment. So maybe these are surrogate parents and brothers and sisters who are cooking for us on TV and are fulfilling for us some kind of collective yearning. . . . I don't know that people are actually watching Rachael or Emeril and even trying to cook that stuff."

Not that it matters. "Even if it's a minority of people who watch the Food Network [and try out the recipes]," Bourdain adds, "enough people are actually raising their expectations and knowledge of what food is--particularly their expectations." Pépin remembers the sparse offerings at the supermarket when he first arrived in New York in 1959. "There were two [types of lettuce] in the supermarket, iceberg and romaine. There were no leeks, no shallots, no chervil, no herbs." Looking for mushrooms at D'Agostino's, he was told "aisle five" for canned mushrooms. "You had to go to a specialty store in New York to just get regular white button mushrooms."

For some celebrity chefs, the culinary revolution and all it entails can be overwhelming. Thomas Keller, famed chef at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, lamented to Michael Ruhlman that sometimes he wished he could simply cook in a kitchen again. Michel Richard knows the feeling. At one point, he ran 10 restaurants across the United States and Japan. Now he is down to two, one of which is the award-winning Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. He wearied of the constant commuting and absence from home. "When I am in one restaurant, I feel guilty because I'm not in the other restaurant. The problem of the TV show is that it takes too much of your time, you feel guilty. 'Oh my gosh! I need to take care of my restaurant!'"

Richard is a man with presence, a burly Frenchman of 59 with a white beard and mustache. People compare him to Santa Claus, and not just for his appearance--Richard is jolly. On occasion, his voice slips into a falsetto. Other times he yells. On a visit to Citronelle, I get to hear both.

Richard asks me to name one French chef on the Food Network. While I am thinking on this, he says in a high pitch: "No, no, no, no, no." I say "Alton Brown," to which he screams, "He is not French!" Last May, for the first time in his life, Richard won the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef award. "I knew I was the best chef way before this," he says with a hearty laugh.

Richard is no stranger to television. "I did NBC, ABC, a lot of TV shows." What he remembers is the producer limiting him to three minutes for a recipe that takes half an hour. Still, he will not rule out television in the future. "I would just want to show the way I cook," he says. "How much I care. And technique. Fun--it has to be funny."

Much as Rachael Ray is known for saying "yum-o" and "EVOO" (extra virgin olive oil), Richard has a verbal trademark, whether or not he realizes it. Throughout our interview, he throws in the word "boop." For instance, when he talks in his colorful English about customers apprehensive over the butter in his sauces: "But the first thing they do, they take half a pound of butter and they spread it on a piece of bread and--boop! They don't like butter but they eat butter all day long." And when he reflects on shifting fashions in cookbooks: "I remember when I moved to this country 30 years ago, with the [arrival of] nouvelle cuisine, we used to have a section [in bookstores] on French chefs, Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé. Boop--gone!"

Richard got his start in the kitchen the old-fashioned way. In a Washington Post profile last year, April Witt described Richard's experiences as an apprentice and boarder with a pastry chef in Sedan in the Ardennes.

If Michel made a mistake, "Bang--he hit you," Michel recalls. "Bang, bang, bang." He says he was routinely slapped and punched. Michel remembers dreading the man's heavy footsteps down the narrow stairway to the shop's basement kitchen each morning. He dreaded even more returning nights to the chef's apartment, where even using the bathroom could unleash a torrent of irrational abuse. He could never leave the bathroom clean enough to satisfy his tormenter. "Taking a shower was like going to Hell," Michel says.

One night, left alone to scrub the shop, Michel sat on his bucket and wept. It was midnight. He put his one spare shirt in a small suitcase and walked toward the train station. Then it occurred to him: "I have no place to go. My mother will not accept me." He sat on a bench. He tried to think of any place where someone would take him in. He went back to the pastry shop. "The worst thing is not to be able to go to somebody and cry in somebody's arms," he says.

At the time, Richard was 14.

And still today, with or without a TV show, his true passion is cooking. His attitude toward the art of food preparation is very much the one expressed by two food-culture colleagues: "What I want to see," says Ted Allen, "whether it's a hoagie or caviar canapé," is "love on the plate." Adds Jacques Pépin, "There is something very fulfilling in . . . cooking for someone. I mean, cooking is maybe the purest form of love in a way because you always cook for the other. The other could be your lover, it could be your child, it could be your grandmother, it could be a friend, it could be anyone." It could even be an interviewer.

At Citronelle, I ask Chef Richard about one of the few dishes I can make fairly well: scrambled eggs. At first, he closes his eyes in deep reflection, then he leans in. "I give you the best way to scramble eggs: You scramble them after they are cooked," he whispers. "Take three eggs, you add maybe a little bit of cream, one teaspoon of butter, you mix it together in a bowl--the butter should be melted--and maybe dice up Swiss cheese, season with salt only--the pepper comes at the end before you serve it--and you put that in a container and you cook in a bain-marie in the oven at 300 degrees. Let's say for 35 minutes. And then, when you are ready to serve it, you take a fork, and you break it a little bit. You give it to your wife. It is so creamy and so delicious. It may take a little time but everything takes a little time." And then, with a glint in his eyes, he asks, "You want me to do it?"

With that, the James Beard Outstanding Chef sets to making me scrambled eggs. As we wait for them to cook, we talk about the state of celebrity chefs.

He asks why chefs on TV "have to act like a clown or look like a clown"--he refuses to name names on the record. He jokes that if Daniel Boulud opens a restaurant in Washington, which is quite possible, he will open one in New York. And he speculates about the future: "I think each chef is going to be online with his own show. I think so. And when you're ready to make reservations, you get to see the chef and the way he cooks. I think that's the next step."

When our eggs are ready, he breaks them up in the baking dish, generously sprinkles them with cheese, adds two dollops of sour cream, freshly cracked pepper, and two crisp slices of fried plantain. Richard then brings them over to the chef's table, where we share the meal. "I'm sorry I overcooked them," he apologizes. They are the best I've ever tasted.

Victorino Matus, assistant managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is working on a book on celebrity chefs.