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Chefs 'going commercial'


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 03:29 PM

Kim WB proposed this topic in the following words:

In lots of threads, cooks and serious foodies bemoan a line of frozen food, or a chef's appearance on Food Network, or even a cookbook that (gasp!) makes money for the chef. Many people seem to have expectations that food preparation should remain pure. And it seems most prevalent with young cooks, who so quickly disparage the older famous chefs for cashing in; it goes beyond jealousy. Comparable to a famous stage actress taking a role on a soap opera. So many people get offended. Yet, when banker opens one branch, and it's successful, everyone wants him to open two or five or ten more branches, and the young bankers want to emulate him, not disparage him. It is as if the expectations and definitions of success are so different in the business world compared to the restaurant world, as if chefs don't have kids with tuitions!


Kim also wrote that she would "like to explore the anger, dismay and other strong feelings people have about chefs 'going commercial', and why this is unique to the restaurant industry"

Do a chef’s commercial interests and ambitions affect your choice of restaurant?

Do you try to dine in restaurants where the chef is always "hands on", on the view that this provides a better chance for a satisfying meal (assuming, of course, that the chef is talented to begin with)?

Our chef members may want to discuss the advantages and differences between a chef working in the kitchen and one who delegates the direction of the cooking to a subordinate while engaging in other commercial activities.

Of course we welcome any other comments and ideas on this topic.
Jonathan Day
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#2 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 05:35 PM

I don't think most chefs hate celebrity chefs. I think we hate what they have to mutate into to become a little more "viewer friendly." I mean I bet Emeril's a fun guy to work for and all, but the pro-wrestling posturing, and "barking seal" mentality of his audience is so foreign to the life we know that our immediate response is to belittle the guy. Watch his first show, the one he did back in the late nineties. It was watchable, if not a little painful to view because he was so awkward in front of a camera. We (chefs) could at least relate, put ourselves in his shoes and appreciate that he was trying to get the word out on food. But now he's had to get a funk band, and wear silly themed get-ups to set himself apart. I mean he looks like he's having a good time and all but shit...that ain't what it's all about I don't think. And the Pastel Goody Goody shows like BEST OF with Jill Cordes and Mark Silverstein and, oh please lord keep me from being booted off this website, 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray are annoying at best and offensive at worst to those professionals that pour their hearts and souls into their food and hold a high amount of contempt for pre-washed and cut lettuce zombies that gravitate towards her show. Don't the housewives already have their own networks? I think I can speak for a lot of chefs, however, when I say that Mario Batali is a godsend. His passion for ingredients, his ultimate respect for Italy, his intellectualizations of food concepts really draws us in and give us something to ponder when we're knee deep in dupes. Yeah, sometimes he totally butchers the English language but give him a break, he's a chef. And his approval rating is bolstered (sorry, bad restaurant reviewer term) even furthur by his apparent ignorance of Food Network decorum. Doesn't he realize that he looks silly in cheap Army Navy shorts, bright orange Birkies and loud turquoise woolies, one might wonder. Yes, I think. I think it's his brilliant wink to the tight-asses in the boardroom who devoutly believe that the more pastel and frosted glass you have on your set the better the show will score in the Neilsons. And I think it's a lot more comfortable than the get ups that most of the guys on that network sport. I'd love to see Torres dressed up like that, instead of wearing that gut sucking sportwear he dons.

Sara Molton is fabulous...an anomoly. She's all about housewife but in the know at the same time. She has great guest chefs on her show and, Godbless that woman, tries to prepare multicourse meals while talking joyously to callers who have no idea what kind of coordination it takes to perform under that kind of stress. I know more than one chef that'd be losing his (Bobby Flay) cool under that kind of pressure. Last week I thought she was going to fall apart before our eyes but she pulled it together and finished the show early.


And in some of our cases we're just plain jealous of Food Network personalities. There are some of us that feel worthy of our owns shows but know deep down inside that the country isn't ready for brooding, foulmouthed geniuses quite yet. If they'd do a reality show in a professional kitchen I'm sure you'd see your heroes badmouthing customers and co-workers alike. It may not be PC but it is the reality. Every chef, cook, waiter, busboy, etc. shit talks customers. "A-1 with my hangersteak dish? Oh man, f... that sorry fool. Next time they come in I'm gonna give them a sauce they can really sink their teeth into." We want to see the reality on the tube but all we get is polished PC crud. We're a brutish group afterall. We'll settle for a few good burnt limbs and call it even.

#3 wingding

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 06:12 PM

The cries of 'sellout' are not unique to the foodie world.Musicians,artists,dancers,and clothing designers,just to name a few professions,are prone to the same accusations.It's How you sell out that is controversial,to many.If you can do it without dumbing down your work,gracefully,with style,then go get 'em.Easier said than done of course...But yes,I'd rather dine in a restaurant where the chef is minding the store.Things are better,period...I don't care how talented the staff is,it's just not the same.But chefs.like everyone else,want to make their professional life more diverse,and make some extra change when they can.You can't be on your feet for 70 hours a week forever.

#4 Explorer

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 06:22 PM

It depends on the track record. It's almost a catch-22 situation.
If a Celebrity Chef has proven that his 3-4 restaurants can beat on all cylinders at the same time with the same quality, I accept that. Boulud is one case like that. But if I am going to Trio, or French Laundry or Le Bernadin, I'd like to know that Grant or Thomas or Eric are there personally. I like to experience the real thing although sometimes it doesn't make a difference. At least, if it's a bad experience, I'll know who is responsible. And if I have a great experience, I think that telling it directly to them will make a difference.

Chef/Writer- I truly enjoyed your post and candidness about this topic. I agree about Sarah Moulton; you can't help but sympathize with her and appreciate her genuiness, even if she looks awkward sometimes and not as smooth as Slick Emeril.

How about a Reality TV show where real chefs are filmed by capturing the real spontaneity of the job? Mario's new series has a bit of that but too much editing that removes the real reality.
"I hate people who are not serious about their meals." Oscar Wilde

#5 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 04 March 2003 - 06:44 PM

It depends on the track record. It's almost a catch-22 situation.
If a Celebrity Chef has proven that his 3-4 restaurants can beat on all cylinders at the same time with the same quality, I accept that. Boulud is one case like that. But if I am going to Trio, or French Laundry or Le Bernadin, I'd like to know that Grant or Thomas or Eric are there personally. I like to experience the real thing although sometimes it doesn't make a difference. At least, if it's a bad experience, I'll know who is responsible. And if I have a great experience, I think that telling it directly to them will make a difference.

Chef/Writer- I truly enjoyed your post and candidness about this topic. I agree about Sarah Moulton; you can't help but sympathize with her and appreciate her genuiness, even if she looks awkward sometimes and not as smooth as Slick Emeril.

How about a Reality TV show where real chefs are filmed by capturing the real spontaneity of the job? Mario's new series has a bit of that but too much editing that removes the real reality.

Let's bribe Boudain into spearheading a show called "Real Kitchens, Real Lives." I think the thing would reach No. in a matter of weeks. I mean do people really believe that Tyler Florence ain't gunning for the cute housewives he teaches. We need a revolution. Uh, sorry again. I'm frothing at the mouth...Peace.

#6 ballast_regime

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 03:38 PM

from popular culture's perspective, there is usually a backlash concomitant with "overexposure," since too much of a (good) thing is still too much. e.g., britney spears, reality TV, lord of the rings, and so on. in a much deeper sense, this question is probably more nuanced than intended because it captures the tenor of our time: globalization (in the sense referred to by economists at international financial institutions, and not in the cultural sense [i.e., "all the world's a village"]), the increasing inequality of wealth, the commodification and replicability of experience, commercialism, materialism, branding, advertising--all of these amount to a world most people find undesirable to some degree, and chefs who sell out are just one of its representations.

iml
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#7 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 05:25 PM

from popular culture's perspective, there is usually a backlash concomitant with "overexposure," since too much of a (good) thing is still too much.  e.g., britney spears, reality TV, lord of the rings, and so on.  in a much deeper sense, this question is probably more nuanced than intended because it captures the tenor of our time:  globalization (in the sense referred to by economists at international financial institutions, and not in the cultural sense [i.e., "all the world's a village"]), the increasing inequality of wealth, the commodification and replicability of experience, commercialism, materialism, branding, advertising--all of these amount to a world most people find undesirable to some degree, and chefs who sell out are just one of its representations.

iml
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Man, this guy's smart as shit. Wish us chefs were. .....

#8 wingding

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 02:58 AM

I wish I could agree that most of the world finds mass marketing and globalization of everything somewhat disagreeable.But when I walk down the street,and see how most people dress,eat,and what movies they line up for,it looks to me like they are swallowing the deal whole,and enjoying it.Around 25 years ago,'selling out' was a lot more controversial.In the arts there was a downtown,an underground,and it was a lot more healthy and resistant to mass marketing.The media began to swallow up everything and spit it out faster and faster,and finding a way to stay small became harder and less attractive. Job security in the restaurant business is fragile,and like I said before,being on your feet for 70 hours a week can't last forever.People compromise themselves for practical reasons,lots of times,...families to support,bills to pay.That's life.

#9 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 10:22 AM

Well unfortunately, like music, culinary trends progress. But, unlike some of my contemporaries, and running contrary to my own posts, I think the mass marketing of "Food" is beneficial to the soul of the industry. Yeah, I hate Wolfgang Puck, his cookware, his library of books, his stilted gesturing on the show and all of that phony stuff but he's causing folks that might not want to make a demi-glace for fear of getting in over their heads stand up and take notice. The mass marketing of food, did it not, bring us to the forum we're using right this moment--eGullet.com. It's a .com enterprise conceived out of a love of food, a passion, a collective yearning to provide a platform for professionals and novices alike and yes, some kind of nod to the almighty dollar (ie. shirts, caps etc.) Where else can you communicate with the guys making headlines, Bourdain, Achatz, Meyer (I think they should call his restaurant Blow Smoke). But the guys who conceived of this website should be commended. Bobby Flay--I'll forgo my card carrying personal disdain for the guy--should be commended. If it's about food and trying to spread the word let's allow all of these machinations come to their logical fruitions. Gordon Elliot will get what's coming to him. We don't need to fret about the state of food people........

#10 ballast_regime

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 04:38 PM

spencer: i understand why a part of you embraces chefs who are seen as sellouts; for the same reasons, i empathize with your viewpoint. question is, what is allowing for this increased popular education of food: technology or chefs? i'm more inclined to think it is the former, since the chefs matter very little in my mind (this is not to suggest they shouldn't be appreciated; they should). if it wasn't wolfgang puck, molto mario, and jamie oliver pushing their wares to the public, it would be somebody else. a part of me cannot believe that it is some personal duty to increased knowledge that guides them rather than more cash stuffed in their pockets. egullet.com, like any technology or media, is just a means to an end, and what matters most is how those resources are distributed; in our case, very equally (even if there are some flaws with the site). the greatest contribution to culinary education comes person-to-person, be it in a home kitchen, at a culinary school, or in a high-end vongerichten joint. other media cannot hurt the cause, but it is unsung people--the mother, the guy standing next to you on the line, the cooking instructor--who matter the most (and will continue to).

wingding: i really believe, deep-down, most people abhor some aspect of globalization, especially in the narrow sense referred to by economists at international financial institutions. in this way, globalization is not necessarily the exporting of culture, but the creation of a world economy with ruinous effects upon environmental and human conditions. naturally, these impacts will not be felt as strongly within the rich, industrialized countries (although there are some long-term disadvantages that will come as a result). the CIA released a study entitled "global trends 2015," which predicts that the gulf between the world's rich and poor will continue at an increased rate, with grave consequences (e.g., terrorism will grow, contrary to what economic theory has shown). there will naturally be certain segments that are unopposed to these developments, but they are mostly those will benefit from such a system. the world's population, those in the US included, will eventually do something. one need not look far for encouragement: within the last several weeks there have been unprecedented numbers of people opposing a war that has yet to even happen, which is without parallel in history.

in a much broader sense, "globalization" doesn't have to be synonymous with PR firms running rampant, average joe's and jane's being thought of as a potential "demographic," or with the scantly-flavored oft-gummy-textured plastic-wrapped crap that is passed off as food by most companies.

thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

ian lowe
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#11 Kim WB

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 05:10 PM

I think that what specifically intrigues me is the young cook's, and serious food devotee's, venom towards this commercialism... This disdain seems disproportionate in this industry, which is why I suggested the topic. I might be wrong, and I've appreciated your comments so far.

In a law firm, there is a new associate who busts his a** for years, billing amazing hours, no vacations, etc. He's looking at the senior partner in the corner office, wining and dining, , sitting on boards, European vacations. He is motivated, and he knows that the partner in the cushy chair once worked the same long hours. To take it one step further, that senior partner is looking at the retired "of counsel" names in his firms letterhead, who no longer really practice law...they take out some old clients from time to time, but mostly show up for social events in the luxury suites of the firm. So Senior Partner aspires to be at this level when he retires. Throughout the process, the junior associates are not disparaging the Retired Partner. Every time the Senior partner lands a new client, they're not proclaiming how he's not a competent lawyer...

In my restaurant experience, I recall the young cooks sitting around, reading reviews and articles about some "hot NEW CHEF" and insulting him, everyone knew someone who worked for him who said he was a poser..etc, etc. Then, they would wonder outloud why chef XYZ was not on the list, he's so talanted, best stuff in NY, etc, etc...THEN, when Chef XYZ made a blurb in the food section, the same cooks were lamenting how he stole the dish from chef ABC! Is it envy taken to an extreme? Or is it a non-supportive atmosphere?

Perhaps it was just this particular group of cooks, , but I see shades of it on e-gullet, and can't help but think it is pervasive in the industry.

I apologize for all the analogies, but my writing skills are limited and this is one of the more effective hopes I have to get my points across. :blink:

#12 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 05:29 PM

spencer:  i understand why a part of you embraces chefs who are seen as sellouts; for the same reasons, i empathize with your viewpoint.  question is, what is allowing for this increased popular education of food:  technology or chefs?  i'm more inclined to think it is the former, since the chefs matter very little in my mind (this is not to suggest they shouldn't be appreciated; they should).  if it wasn't wolfgang puck, molto mario, and jamie oliver pushing their wares to the public, it would be somebody else.  a part of me cannot believe that it is some personal duty to increased knowledge that guides them rather than more cash stuffed in their pockets.  egullet.com, like any technology or media, is just a means to an end, and what matters most is how those resources are distributed; in our case, very equally (even if there are some flaws with the site).  the greatest contribution to culinary education comes person-to-person, be it in a home kitchen, at a culinary school, or in a high-end vongerichten joint.  other media cannot hurt the cause, but it is unsung people--the mother, the guy standing next to you on the line, the cooking instructor--who matter the most (and will continue to).

wingding:  i really believe, deep-down, most people abhor some aspect of globalization, especially in the narrow sense referred to by economists at international financial institutions.  in this way, globalization is not necessarily the exporting of culture, but the creation of a world economy with ruinous effects upon environmental and human conditions.  naturally, these impacts will not be felt as strongly within the rich, industrialized countries (although there are some long-term disadvantages that will come as a result).  the CIA released a study entitled "global trends 2015," which predicts that the gulf between the world's rich and poor will continue at an increased rate, with grave consequences (e.g., terrorism will grow, contrary to what economic theory has shown).  there will naturally be certain segments that are unopposed to these developments, but they are mostly those will benefit from such a system.  the world's population, those in the US included, will eventually do something.  one need not look far for encouragement:  within the last several weeks there have been unprecedented numbers of people opposing a war that has yet to even happen, which is without parallel in history.

in a much broader sense, "globalization" doesn't have to be synonymous with PR firms running rampant, average joe's and jane's being thought of as a potential "demographic," or with the scantly-flavored oft-gummy-textured plastic-wrapped crap that is passed off as food by most companies.

thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

ian lowe
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Well I think you're kind of missing my point. I'm not saying chefs are bringing forth this great untapped interest in food to light at all. My point, as convoluted as it reads in my posts, quite simply is that, prove me wrong, food is a lot more POP CULTURE today than it was in say 1975--when all fish was cooked on pie plates with clarified butter and served with lemon wedges and oh, the ever so useless purple kale and paprika dust. The advent of the food network, the rise and popularity of the chef as a pop culture icon, and technology and its various forms are the reasons. And I for one dig that to no end. It's a great time to be a chef--well, not in this economy but that will change sooner or later. I feel like if I continue on the path I'm on maybe I'll be doing a QandA on this site. Back in the day chefs were very rarely thought of as icons--that is if patrons even knew their names. They were over worked, underpaid and misrepresented. Because of all of these new factors that has, for the most part, changed..

Housewives are making risotto, television depicts highly successful people preparing contemporary food stuffs, and more than ever--maybe to the detriment of some employers--young impressionable derelicts are finding their meanderings ending behind the swinging double doors instead of out in the mean streets of America. So, in conclusion, I say bring on the sell-outs--as long as they still use their love of food to make their money. And if I don't like these guys for putting out frozen entrees and posing for blender ads naked then that's my problem.

Food, my friend, the search for flavor and perfection and the satisfaction that those things bring are worth the mass-marketing Britney Spears with a meat cleaver BS that we unsung culinary professionals moan about so vehemently in these forums....

#13 ballast_regime

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 08:21 PM

kim wb: i think you ask a very intriguing question, but i don't see you ever making a value-judgment statement: should any industry be such that the most rewarded aren't necessarily the most talented or devoted? i'm assuming that you would say no, since you argue that you wish the restaurant industry was more like your law firm. i concur on one point, that a part of the constant dissing in restaurants is due to envy, stress, jealousy, and because a lot of the toil that goes on in a kitchen is grueling and under-appreciated.

spencer: today, as much as ever, chefs are still "overworked, underpaid and misrepresented," especially the vast majority of the restaurant industry's labor pool. behind the people who get the recognition--the charlie trotter's, the daniel boulud's, the thomas keller's--is a litany of boys and girls in whites sweating their asses off, and if weren't for their willingness and compliance, then the big-named chefs wouldn't be such big-named chefs. the average line chef's hourly wage in this country still is far, far, far below the poverty line, and the benefits aren't likely to be that great, either. let's not mention immigrants from south of our borders who are paid below minimum wage, and are responsible for a lot of the bone-grindingly hard work.

you mention the "search for flavor" and the pursuit of "perfection," but i don't understand what any big-named chef has to do with either of these ideals; in fact, i've found the very opposite. the bigger the venue, the bigger the soundbite. achieving excellence is not done by living a rock-and-roll lifestyle, but by getting up every day, and doing the same thing, over and over again with the help of others who are willing to subordinate themselves for the same ideal.

[QUOTE]
Housewives are making risotto, television depicts highly successful people preparing contemporary food stuffs, and more than ever--maybe to the detriment of some employers--young impressionable derelicts are finding their meanderings ending behind the swinging double doors instead of out in the mean streets of America. So, in conclusion, I say bring on the sell-outs--as long as they still use their love of food to make their money. And if I don't like these guys for putting out frozen entrees and posing for blender ads naked then that's my problem.

i think a part of all of us want to buy into the myth that popular culture gives us, but how many people are actually making risotto, even once-a-month? none of my parents' friends, who represent the richest demographic in the country. their diets are mundanely corporate, and are fashioned more by what supermarkets are pushing than by what bobby flay is making. this is not to say that there hasn't been a positive trend towards greater collective culinary enlightenment; there has. the reasons for this are many: the increased availability of many exotic, rare, or otherwise "gourmet" ingredients in normal grocers; greater food media (magazines, cookbooks, TV, and internet providers); big-named chefs saying the word "diver scallops" or "foie gras" over and over; and so on.

thank you both for your wonderful thoughts.

ian
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#14 wingding

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Posted 06 March 2003 - 10:13 PM

Envy and sniping aren't exclusive to kitchens.Bands do it,artists do it,even birds do it!I think that in N.Y. anyway,that the star system and food columns up the ante,and take us right back to elementary school.He got a gold star,and I didn't...my sister got a bigger serving of pudding.I've listened to it all in kitchens too,and it is often silly,but it's just human nature. I think that publicity is overvalued sometimes-it doesn't always have as much effect as people think...

#15 ChocoKitty

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Posted 07 March 2003 - 06:41 AM

Throughout  the process, the junior associates are not disparaging the Retired Partner.  Every time the Senior partner lands a new client, they're not proclaiming how he's not a competent lawyer...

Interesting analogy, but I think that the backbiting in law firms is closer to the restaurant model than we might think (again, I personally think that sniping about "going commercial" happens in all industries because it's human nature). From what I've seen, when a partner lands a new client there will be squabbling among the other partners saying, "I found that client first." To add to the mix, younger lawyers will disparage older lawyers for not doing real work anymore. Even at the law student level, I've seen new attorneys working in government and public interest jobs branding their law firm colleagues as sellouts, interested in only money while representing "bad guy" corporations.

So back to this topic, I think it's human nature to envy and trash talk other people, no matter what the profession. Even among vocations that make no money, such as independent zine publishing, writers who manage to get some commercial success are branded as sellouts. But using this logic, I suppose critics of commercial success would claim that the ultimate measure of success is when no one wants to read (or eat) your work. At least that way, you can claim that you're a misunderstood genius.

I personally think that increased marketing and awareness of food is a GOOD thing. Even 15 years ago, it was hard to find bok choy and other Oriental goods at the local grocery store. Now there's an entire aisle of Oriental foodstuffs because more people are aware of them and demand them. Even if people aren't make risotto once a month right now, the nice thing is that they could. The ingredients are there. Heck, the fact that more people KNOW what risotto is is an improvement. When I look back to the cookbooks of the 1960's and 1970's and compare them to what's available today, I'm happy that better food has been more commercialized. Not everyone can afford, or wants, to eat at the high-end restaurants that we seem so fond of here. But if someone chooses a Wolfgang Puck frozen pizza over a Tombstone one because of savvy marketing, well, isn't that an improvement? Or would the food elite rather keep the chefs to themselves and use food consumption habits as a way to separate themselves from "the masses"?

#16 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 07 March 2003 - 07:45 AM

I must say by bias is selfishly motivated. I hold chefs in the highest esteem and in today’s world of desktop publishing; they are truly Pop-Artisans that put creativity on a plate. But changes are made to appeal the mass market – and as with anything that is diluted for the masses – it’s loses it’s appeal to the aficionado.

Exactly. In a nut shell too. Thanks.

#17 ballast_regime

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Posted 07 March 2003 - 10:02 AM

chocokitty: i think your heart's in the right place, but i'm not sure i agree with everything you say. as i've pointed out:

this is not to say that there hasn't been a positive trend towards greater collective culinary enlightenment; there has. the reasons for this are many: the increased availability of many exotic, rare, or otherwise "gourmet" ingredients in normal grocers; greater food media (magazines, cookbooks, TV, and internet providers); big-named chefs saying the word "diver scallops" or "foie gras" over and over; and so on.


the increased availability of rare, exotic, and otherwise "gourmet" foodstuffs is more of a by-product of the emergence of an otherwise unseen market for companies because there has been a surge in food knowledge, thanks in part to numerous media. the only reason certain asian ingredients are widely available in many grocers is because there is a demand, which is due to more people knowing about bok choy or different types of miso or tofu. the same is true for organic and all-natural foods, whose larger consumer tends to be middle-upper-class citizens worried about their health and diet. there was a great mother jones expose on a related trend, with the implication that such a market wouldn't exist if there wasn't a demand, since there's no corporate imperative for diversity if there is no profit to be found. all of this is not to say the glass if half empty, but to reemphasize the need for people, like every one of us, to continually try and promote all that we know. my belief is that the majority of food knowledge is passed person-to-person, and it is through these means that we can continue to try and change the way we eat, one bite at a time (to steal a gourmet magazine saying about charlie trotter's).

thank you for your insight.

ian
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#18 Jonathan Day

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 07:00 AM

It's paradoxical that we are debating globalisation and commercialisation through what is arguably its most powerful engine, information and communication technology (ICT).

These technologies change the personal element in a powerful way. Connection no longer requires face-to-face contact. The proprietor of the best boucherie/charcuterie in our town is personally known to lots of people, and he knows most of his customers personally, including those of us who are away for many weeks at a time: he remembers their preferences, their children, and so on. A "circle of friends" gathers in his shop every evening, to drink and talk.

Yet he, and most of his customers, are convinced that this is a dying business. He will not pass on the shop to his children when he retires (and two weeks ago, he suffered a heart attack, and the future of the shop is uncertain pending his recovery). It's just too hard, and the supermarkets far too powerful. The personal element will go away. The small will lose out to the large.

I don't believe in the view that national borders will crumble away, or that governments have or will become irrelevant -- this seems almost laughable in light of recent front-page news. But the progress of ICT and the fundamentally more efficient business models it creates, seem unstoppable. And I'm not sure I would want to stop them; my ability to spend significant time every year in a small French town depends on the availability of low-cost travel and also on my ability to stay in contact with work from afar. Both of which require ICT.

Of course there are second- and third-order effects. The low cost airlines create demand for flights, and that leads to travel and pollution. Mobile phones make all sorts of things easier, but they are disruptive in all sorts of situations. The internet enables community at a distance, yet we may be spending more time staring at screens than talking with our families.

As others have noted, it's easy to see that a chef, working long and hard hours, would benefit from the ability to profit from giving the world easier access to his art. This has happened for years; Raymond Oliver, for example, published a cookbook and went from the kitchens of the Grand Véfour to become one of France's earliest television chefs. It's just that modern ICT makes it so much easier and faster.

The result is that, even at the high end, the personal element is getting hard to find. The dinner you eat at ADPA is, in all likelihood, not cooked by Alain Ducasse, or even checked by the master as it leaves the kitchen. You could say that it is prepared by a sort of disembodied spirit of the chef, his know-how and standards captured and encoded in books, training programmes, databases ... ICT again. You can't go into the kitchen and thank the chef, because he's probably on a plane to Toyko or New York. The positive is that his vision of cookery is available to far more people; the negative, the loss of the personal element.

For me, at least, the trade-off has not been a bad one (and even if I thought it was, it would make little difference). The challenge is to find ways to re-create the personal over time and distance. That's one reason that the ways we communicate on eGullet are important. This is about creating community over a potentially very noisy medium.

At the moment, though, the shop is closed and the circle of friends is silent.
Jonathan Day
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#19 John Whiting

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 11:22 AM

Jonathan, you’ve touched on a dichotomy that is central to my own food experience. I am less and less interested in grand restaurants and celebrity chefs and more often in search of small establishments like the local shop whose threatened demise makes you unhappy. But as a resident of London, the way I find such places in France is through guidebooks and electronic communication. For instance, when I went to Paris looking for calorific cheeses and sauces, eGullet came up with the best leads, including bistros I’ll go back to again and again.

And yet, turning the wheel full circle, you point out that the forces that promote rapid and long-range communication also threaten the very existence of these small establishments. As News Editor of Fine Food Digest, I find that much (though not all) of the news that I gather is unequivocally bad. The publisher accepts this, and in fact asked me to take it on because I was adept at digging out information that would make his retailers wince. Survival is not best served by ignorance.

Behind what you say is the inescapable suggestion that the very structure of the multinational corporation that is rapidly becoming the model of government and even of the arts carries within itself the destruction of those intimate, non-hierarchical personal relationships from which the most notable human activities have always evolved. As you accurately observed,

“ . . . even at the high end, the personal element is getting hard to find.”

I would add, *especially* at the high end, even after spending a great deal of money for it.
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#20 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 12:24 PM

God, I think I'm getting depressed here....

#21 ronfland

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 06:45 AM

Thank you to all who have participated in this thread thusfar for a very interesting discussion.

I wish we could get a lot of the "commercial" chefs we talk about so frequently here on e-gullet to do Q&As - since I have a feeling we could learn so much more about them and their cooking than their onstage personas allow. Like in many other venues - the arts specifically - these on-air identies are often the creation of marketing executives and have precious little to do with the "real" identities of the stars.

Many times in the midst of Emeril bashing around here, someone gently reminds us that "Emeril can really cook", and maybe Rachel Ray doesn't always use pre-washed, pre-packaged salad greens when she cooks for herself at home- maybe some of her meals do indeed take longer than 30 minutes. Sara Moulton may indeed get flustered at home when trying to juggle her career, husband, kids and a squid-ink risotto all at the same time. I'm equally convinced that Tyler Florence deals with MUCH better looking women in life than he gets to "gun" on his show and that Bobby Flay wants to slap his ridiculous co-hostess as much as the rest of us do.

I personally think it would be SO interesting to see what "germs" of these chefs personalities are really in their on-air identities, and what proportion of those identites are created by the network. Also, I'd like to know how much influence the network has on content and the type of food these people produce on air. For instance - having eaten in both of Bobby Flay's restaurants in NY, it seems that the food he does on air is very similar to that which he cooks in his own establishments. It is my suspicion (in no way based in fact) that the "Kenneth Cole poster boy" image he has is very natural for him. But, maybe Emeril hates that band and is sick of crawfish in all forms.

I'd love to talk to some of the marketing people too. There has got to be a point where they just give up, and let the cooking stand on its own. Batali has to be a case in point here. He doesn't look good and the camera is unkind to him, he not only butchers English - he MASSACRES Italian, he mumbles and he's sloppy. Yet he manages to turn out "some" authentic food and more than respectable ratings. Jack McDaniel was another of my favorite camera fugitives.

Getting a real insight into these folks might put put an interesting spin on the commercialism discussion. I think any of us would don those Old-Navy shorts and ugly red clogs to make Mario's money - but there's so much more to it. What seems like "selling out" might have a real purpose lurking underneath. Rachel Ray may feel (as I do about her) that she is a stepping stone for people who find the kitchen unmanageable on a daily basis and is therefore content with the image that FTV has woven for her.

I am reminded in this discussion of "The Three Tenors". Never were there three men who had to endure the cries of "Sellout!" more. Cognoscenti everywhere were raising their eyebrows and wagging their tongues as the 3T empire grew and sales climbed. Artistic sellout - maybe. But three guys found a way to cash in on their unquestioned talent that few will ever have the opportunity to do again, and in doing so brought the world of classical singing (if not the repertoire) to an audience who for any other reason may never have been exposed. Some marketing exec somewhere now currently owns Belize, and PBS stations stay afloat by selling the tapes and rerunning the broadcasts. A perfect world, maybe not but certainly a functional success. I wonder if this is how it is for Emeril. Oh if we could only have some of that personal contact with these guys that Jonathan Day has with his bucher (who I hope is recovering nicely).

#22 hjshorter

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 07:47 AM

oh please lord keep me from being booted off this website, 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray are annoying at best and offensive at worst to those professionals that pour their hearts and souls into their food and hold a high amount of contempt for pre-washed and cut lettuce zombies that gravitate towards her show.  Don't the housewives already have their own networks?

Whoa. Speaking for "housewives," yes, there is a network for "us." That doesn't mean we don't appreciate getting a nod occasionally. I don't happen to care for Rachel Ray, but as someone who buys prewashed lettuce from time to time, I can appreciate wanting to cook a meal (instead of open a can or box) within certain time constraints.

I have no problem with chefs going commercial. Emeril's TV persona may get irritating at times, but if he gets one person a night to expand his horizons then he's doing his job as far as I'm concerned.
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#23 hjshorter

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 08:03 AM

I am reminded in this discussion of "The Three Tenors".  Never were there three men who had to endure the cries of "Sellout!" more.  Cognoscenti everywhere were raising their eyebrows and wagging their tongues as the 3T empire grew and sales climbed.  Artistic sellout - maybe.  But three guys found a way to cash in on their unquestioned talent that few will ever have the opportunity to do again, and in doing so brought the world of classical singing (if not the repertoire) to an audience who for any other reason may never have been exposed.

What a brilliant analogy, and thank you. I was one of those with raised eyebrows when the Three Tenors were cashing in, but I never examined my attitude, or wondered if bringing classical singing to a mass market (well, for PBS) was a good thing for those who may not have been exposed to it, or had been exposed to it and found it intimidating. If it persuaded a few obnoxious divas to adopt a friendlier more down-to-earth persona, then that's a god thing too, right?

The mass marketing of upscale food (or at least, more complicated than Stouffers) doesn't affect me in the same way - perhaps because food is universal?

I have seen more than a hint of sexism in the vitriol directed at Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, etc. I wonder how that figures in to the equation?
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#24 ronfland

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 11:44 AM

I have seen more than a hint of sexism in the vitriol directed at Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, etc.  I wonder how that figures in to the equation?

The lack of a real "celebrity" lady chef has mystified me as well. Call me naive, but I thought the concept of "well, some women can cook, but few are chefs" went out the window with Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich and some others. If that is indeed the case, then the fault must lie with the marketers.

Think about it for a sec:

Nigella Lawson - has all the right stuff in as far as looks and charisma, but questionable culinary skill.

Gale Gand - is arguably a fair baker, but has a hard time with the camera and is not particularly engaging.

Rachel Ray - is great in the personality department, but has been ascribed an image that annoys many - I like her.

Ina Garten - don't get me started, there are more than a few lady e-gulleteers who I am sure are better cooks than she is and probably could handle a cookbook and tv show more elegantly.

Sara Moulton - who I adore, suffers an image that belies the high professional level of her attainments and relegates her to the aforementioned "housewife" category.

Fenniger and Miliken - I loved those gals, and I think FTV really dropped the ball with their shows. They certainly had a better than fair balance of personality and culinary ability.

Martha Stewart - the only one who is of "real" celebrity is of course self marketed, but I think many men find her aloof perfection off putting. In addition, she's got so many other things going for her besides cooking.

Martha not withstanding (I am a shameless Martha fan), I am reminded of the tune "Ya gotta get a gimmick"; there's no real marketing tool here to propel these ladies to the status of a Mario or a Bobby Flay (emeril status might be unattainable for anyone - regardless of gender :wink: ).

This is of course not a complete analysis, but a fair cross section of those who might be able to be "molded" into celebrity status. I wonder if that "sexism" of which you speak affects the marketers as well.

Needless to say - none of the "Three Sopranos" efforts has been as successful as the boys either - but I think that's a different issue. I'm sorry if this veres too far off topic.

#25 hjshorter

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 02:37 PM

The lack of a real "celebrity" lady chef has mystified me as well.  Call me naive, but I thought the concept of "well, some women can cook, but few are chefs" went out the window with Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich and some others.

The best example of a female chef with national stature, and not just a niche appeal, is Julia Child. Almost everyone knows who she is, as opposed to Alice Waters, who is known to foodies but I'm guessing not to a wider audience. Of the list you made, only Martha Stewart achieves Julia's name recognition.
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#26 ronfland

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 04:37 PM

I should have been clearer - I was taking Julia Child as a given; of course she is the doyenne of celebrity chef. I was trying to deal with the current generation of Mario/Emeril counterpart potentials.

#27 Chef/Writer Spencer

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 05:23 PM

The lack of a real "celebrity" lady chef has mystified me as well.  Call me naive, but I thought the concept of "well, some women can cook, but few are chefs" went out the window with Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich and some others.

The best example of a female chef with national stature, and not just a niche appeal, is Julia Child. Almost everyone knows who she is, as opposed to Alice Waters, who is known to foodies but I'm guessing not to a wider audience. Of the list you made, only Martha Stewart achieves Julia's name recognition.

Julia is not a chef....

#28 ronfland

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 08:07 PM

Julia is not a chef....

Ok - I'll bite, after all her achievements in the culinary field, who does she have to blow to get the title? Most people who call themselves chefs are just cooks anyway.

#29 Jonathan Day

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 02:34 AM

In several memoirs and a recent interview with Larry King, Julia Child emphasised that she was a cookery teacher and writer, not a chef. That doesn't take anything away from her enormous achievement, it just means that she didn't work in a restaurant. Apparently the PBS station in Boston chose the title "The French Chef" because it was short and would therefore appear in full in TV Guide and in the newspaper listings.

But I want to use this reference to Julia Child to bring us back to the start of this thread. Julia Child's massive publication record (books, articles, videos, etc.) shows how a cooking authority can take her or his knowledge and "disembody" it, so that it is delivered to millions rather than hundreds of people. Of course Julia gave up most of the economic benefit of her work by doing it through public broadcasting (and I think that some of the proceeds from her books and videos went to non-profit causes, but I am not sure). Nonetheless, a lot of money changed hands.

I have a strong hypothesis on restaurant economics: at "normal" scale (a few hundred covers, let's say), restaurants are a terrible way to money. This is an industry plagued by bad competitors (who often don't know that they are going under, let alone why), high fixed and high variable costs, fads and fashions, and a tough regulatory environment. This is a topic we might debate on a separate thread, so I won't elaborate on it here. But the empirical evidence is all around us.

Even if a chef-owner's goal is not to get rich but just to make a comfortable living, a restaurant is a bad place to start from. Hence the pressure to find media outlets and other vehicles that are less subject to the difficult economic environment of the restaurant business. For some chefs, the TV gig or cookbook may be a matter of survival rather than "going commercial".
Jonathan Day
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#30 ronfland

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 04:40 AM

So true Jonathan. Not only often unreasonable financially, its HARD work. Those chefs who can parlay a modicum of real restaurant success into book, tv and teaching deals well deserve any bit of fiscal/social success they can get from it imho.