I’ve always thought I understood the arcane workings of the star system, but I still marvel at how cooks and bottle washers have achieved the star status of actors and musicians. Famous foodies are much in the news lately — Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and the late Anthony Bourdain — and the shows of star chefs sprawl across the TV landscape (“food TV is a cultural wasteland,” warns Bon Appetit). “Misfits, free spirits and wanderers have created a new American profession,” heralds Andrew Friedman in his new book titled Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, which is good summer reading.
Friedman writes colorfully about his cast of foodie miscreants, but I am left wondering whether we’re all falling victim to a feast of hype. I’m willing to pay a hefty tab at a top restaurant heralding a “name” chef, but still wonder how the egos, prices and sexual transgressions of chef stars reached or surpassed Hollywood levels. Long lines of diners wait to get into the massive, Batali-inspired Eataly emporiums in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, even as Batali is trying to navigate his way past his maze of kitchen catastrophes (he is officially detached from his own restaurants).
Movies about star chefs are still being churned out at a fast clip (I enjoyed Bradley Cooper’s Burnt but no one else seemed to). Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back is getting hot ratings and has already been renewed by Fox (why do viewers enjoy Ramsay’s rants?) and that folksy foodie, Phil Rosenthal, has scored a new traveling restaurant show on Netflix (he seems to own almost every restaurant that he recommends). Meanwhile, Matt Weaver, who with David Gelb is responsible for that memorable father-and-son foodie movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has optioned Friedman’s Chefs & Drugs book (with Renee Frigo) as the basis for a docuseries, covering the ascent of the star chef (Weaver also produced the non-foodie Rock of Ages).
Bourdain’s tragic suicide underscored the turbulent triumphs and disasters of the culinary cult. His early shows on the Food Network delivered a remarkable litany of hints about cuisine as well as snarky insights into kitchen intrigues. Life on the cooking line, it turns out, is even more relentlessly raucous than on a movie set. As Bourdain’s audience grew on CNN, however, he became increasingly obsessed with the culture, not just the cuisine, of the places he visited, and his mood became ever darker. He seemed happy to explain what people were eating, but was troubled about what their leaders were thinking. His passing opens a big gap in the pop culture landscape.
As Friedman makes clear, many if not most chefs similar problems in their younger years intersecting with conventional society. “Mine is a business that’s nonverbal, that’s sensual,” Bourdain once explained. “In the end, the kitchen will always embrace you,” wrote Batali, who started as a dishwasher. Friedman’s book still reminds us of how establishment chefs blocked aspiring young American cooks thru the 1980s and ’90s. Even Daniel Boulud, who came to the U.S. from France in 1981, acknowledged the fervent anti-Americanism that he observed in New York’s French-oriented kitchens. “It was supposedly about a lack of training,” but also about outright snobbishness, he wrote. A small band of American food critics like Gael Greene and Craig Claiborne helped focus attention on young American chefs including the much heralded (and perhaps over-rated) Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in San Francisco. And the breakthrough of the unintentionally hilarious Julia Child vastly increased the TV foodie audience.
Clearly a chef’s success, like an actor’s, is a function of character and personality rather than pure culinary talent. From the outset, Wolfgang Puck knew his stuff but, starting with Spago, his crowded little joint on Sunset Boulevard, he saw to it that his restaurants were hospitable and warm. Diners were always greeted with a handshake as well as his ubiquitous pizza topped with caviar (it was ostensibly free but always appeared on the bill). By contrast, a chilly restaurant like Bouchon, a critics’ favorite, recently closed its doors in Beverly Hills (its revered absentee owner was Thomas Keller).
Today, given rising costs and stubborn labor disputes, it’s probably easier to run a successful food show than a successful restaurant. On his new TV show, Ramsay cruises into failing restaurants and tells chefs how to correct mistakes. I remember visiting a failing Ramsay restaurant in Los Angeles a couple of years ago where Ramsay couldn’t fix his own mistakes, and his place in London has the warmth of a DMV.
In terms of my own eating habits, I managed last month to eat my way across France without patronizing a single Michelin star. Non-celebrity chefs try harder and run their restaurants better. And returning home, it was nice this weekend to put a burger on the barbecue.