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When the Mega-Food-Star Phenomenon Jumps the Shark


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The recession is slamming away at restaurants across the country. Cookbook sales are dropping like rocks. FoodTV has been lousy for years; the last Top Chef was a farce and quality past winners can't find work.

To reference a recent Richard Blais tweet from the Food & Wine event in Aspen, you can't swing a sixpack of Coors without hitting a "mega food star." But stardom is a fickle beast -- ask Rocco -- and when consumers are having trouble finding a few bucks for an Unhappy Meal, it's only a matter of time before the whole bloated foodie-fan-driven affair collapses under its own weight.

When will the Mega Food Star jump the shark? And then what happens? Who's the Ron Howard? Who's the Penny Marshall? Who's the guy who played Squiggy?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I think that our culture is too star and personality obsessed for this to happen. More likely, we will see chefs arrive with a splash and then fade from view if they can't maintain their celebrity and product at the same time or depending on the culinary fad du jour.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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When will the Mega Food Star jump the shark? And then what happens? Who's the Ron Howard? Who's the Penny Marshall? Who's the guy who played Squiggy?

I don't know about Squiggy, but Lenny sure went on to have a great career.

I don't think Mega Food Stars, who also have multiple restaurants and product lines (e.g. Batali, Emeril, Flay) have anything to worry about. I don't think Martha or Rachael are going anywhere fast either.

Rocco was a food star when he was in his kitchens - especially at Union Pacific, where, in retrospect, perhaps he should have stayed, cause he was obviously a hack on TV...and then when you show up on Dancing with the Stars or whatever, well...the end of the world is upon us.

True hacks, like Guy Fieri, the cake dude, et.al. will hopefully fade away - or burn out fast.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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When will the Mega Food Star jump the shark? And then what happens? Who's the Ron Howard? Who's the Penny Marshall? Who's the guy who played Squiggy?

I don't know about Squiggy, but Lenny sure went on to have a great career.

I don't think Mega Food Stars, who also have multiple restaurants and product lines (e.g. Batali, Emeril, Flay) have anything to worry about. I don't think Martha or Rachael are going anywhere fast either.

Rocco was a food star when he was in his kitchens - especially at Union Pacific, where, in retrospect, perhaps he should have stayed, cause he was obviously a hack on TV...and then when you show up on Dancing with the Stars or whatever, well...the end of the world is upon us.

True hacks, like Guy Fieri, the cake dude, et.al. will hopefully fade away - or burn out fast.

When you reference "the cake dude" are you talking about Duff of "Ace of Cakes" or that loud, obnoxious attention whore baker on "Cake Boss?" If it's the former, he seems to be running a pretty solid bakery and is a very likeable fellow with an equally likeable bunch of hard working employees. I don't see them going down fading away or burning out. If it's the latter, then I agree he's so over-the-top awful that he should at least fade away from the tv spotlight fairly soon although he too seems to be running a successful business.

Inside me there is a thin woman screaming to get out, but I can usually keep the Bitch quiet: with CHOCOLATE!!!

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That's what vaudevillians, silent film stars, and Danny Terrio thought, too.

My point is that chefs who become famous and stars because of the food that they cook that people actually eat, will likely remain stars so long as their cooking continues to satisfy. I think it is the very rare chef who can preside over a successful and worthwhile empire. I would like to think that the days of those chefs remaining famous because of past deeds may be numbered, but I think our culture tends to like celebrity wherever it comes from and tends to celebrate celebrity for its own sake.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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My point is that chefs who become famous and stars because of the food that they cook that people actually eat, will likely remain stars so long as their cooking continues to satisfy.

But there were people doing that for decades before the star chef was born. Can anyone really claim that Jonathan Tower, Jean-Louis Palladin, or any of a hundred other talented chefs who rose before the advent of the food media onslaught were making unsatisfying food?

My point is that it's the machines built to promote stardom, and not the quality of individual stars, that drives the mega food star phenomenon.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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My point is that chefs who become famous and stars because of the food that they cook that people actually eat, will likely remain stars so long as their cooking continues to satisfy.

But there were people doing that for decades before the star chef was born. Can anyone really claim that Jonathan Tower, Jean-Louis Palladin, or any of a hundred other talented chefs who rose before the advent of the food media onslaught were making unsatisfying food?

My point is that it's the machines built to promote stardom, and not the quality of individual stars, that drives the mega food star phenomenon.

I am not sure that we are disagreeing. Sure there are machines to promote culinary stars, The Food Network being the most prominent, but the American public is much more willing to accept chefs as celebrities than they were in the past, something the chefs you mentioned were not able to take advantage of except in retrospect. I think both aspects come into play today. A good machine can make a star out of someone undeserving as well as someone who is deserving. Most of the FN stars are stars not because they are wonderful cooks or chefs, but because they are personalities who happen to fit in a kitchen (sometimes), but then some are excellent chefs.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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There have been food related celebrities in the media for a long time. Back before TV there were radio shows, like "Mystery Chef." Then, TV came along and so did a bunch of local and national food celebrities (Does Poppy Cannon ring a bell?) whom we have all but forgotten, primarily, IMO because their shows were less about food and more about their own cult of celebrity.

Now, it's true, times have changed. On the one had, chefs are no longer considered to be part of the 'downstairs' servant crew; they are respected professionals. On the other hand, fewer home cooks prepare everything from scratch on a daily basis.

We remember Julia Child and James Beard because what they presented remained meaningful and useful. Meanwhile, Peg Bracken, who was at one time just as big a household name as Julia, has slipped into obscurity.

It's just like the book industry. Every year, since the mid-1800's, thousands of cookbooks get published. Many of them are not worth buying, written by people more interested in fame than cooking. A few are written by craftspeople who want to further the art and science of food, or perhaps wish to document their efforts. (Ranhofer, et al)

I'd say that the current perceived glut is simply part of the cheapening and expansion of all media over the past decade. We have more media outlets (500+ tv channels, the web, etc.), and people are simply adding food content to all of the outlets meaning that the sort of celebs who used to, maybe, just have a local radio spot now get on a national tv show.

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If James Beard or Julia Child walked down a typical street in any US city back in the day, I doubt a soul would recognize them. if Rachel, Tom, or Tony walked down the street, they'd be mobbed. It's a different order of star magnitude.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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If James Beard or Julia Child walked down a typical street in any US city back in the day, I doubt a soul would recognize them. if Rachel, Tom, or Tony walked down the street, they'd be mobbed. It's a different order of star magnitude.

I don't agree. Julia had the #1 show on PBS for quite a while -back when most of us just got the big 3 networks plus PBS and maybe one or two UHF channels on our tv's with rabbit ears. She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1966. She was famous enough for Saturday Night Live to do a parody of, without in-depth explanation.

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That's what vaudevillians, silent film stars, and Danny Terrio thought, too.

That's what happened to plenty of people in all kinds of fields. The fact of the matter is that a career in the broad category of "entertainment" is risky at best, and usually extremely short lived at the top. It is only the precious few who are able to sustain super-celebrity status for a long period of time. That doesn't mean you can't keep on working. It just means that you won't always be a superstar celebrity in your field. It's not like Deney Terrio stopped working after Solid Gold went off the air.

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There have been food related celebrities in the media  for a long time.

.....

Now, it's true, times have changed.

I think your comments, while recognizing that times have changed, may underestimate just how much. The cult of celebrity chefdom is a very real and significant phenomenon that bears only vague relation to anything from the past. While it's possible to cite a few outliers from Escoffier to Child to Bocuse, the landscape now is fundamentally different, with chefs now having their own category of celebrity.

I'd say that the current perceived glut is simply part of the cheapening and expansion of all media over the past decade. We have more media outlets (500+ tv channels, the web, etc.), and people are simply adding food content to all of the outlets meaning that the sort of celebs who used to, maybe, just have a local radio spot now get on a national tv show.

That would be a valid explanation if celebrity chefdom remained limited to the Food TV universe. But chefs are now celebrities across all media. The Restaurant was not on Food TV. It was on NBC. In addition, Food TV may have started as a niche cable network but is now more significant, and food programming has spilled over to Bravo, Discovery, et al.

It's not like Deney Terrio stopped working after Solid Gold went off the air.

Thank goodness for that. Although, I think you mean Dance Fever.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Well, the Discovery Channel is seven years older than the Food Network, and was showing cooking and food related shows from the start. Lifetime had a cooking-show lineup in the mornings, when it was new. And, of course, PBS has always had food shows.

I still know people who don't have a clue that Top Chef even exists.

For the last couple of years, my local ACF chapter (don't get me started about the food professionals who don't recognize that on my resume) has volunteered to help out at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival. I helped run the door of the venue where speakers appeared. Security and SCF staff alike all uniformly refused admission to every one of the speakers in 2008. I literally had to point to the giant poster hanging above the theater and say, "This is Sam Talbot, he is the noon speaker, he was on Top Chef' and 'This is Dale Levitski, he is the 11am speaker, he was on Top Chef" and "This is Rock Harper, he is the 10am speaker." As a matter of fact, Sam was refused admission on five separate occasions. It got to be such a joke that I just gave him paid admission ID bracelet. -This is supposed to be the biggest culinary event in Phoenix, run by supposed foodies.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think your comments, while recognizing that times have changed, may underestimate just how much. The cult of celebrity chefdom is a very real and significant phenomenon that bears only vague relation to anything from the past. While it's possible to cite a few outliers from Escoffier to Child to Bocuse, the landscape now is fundamentally different, with chefs now having their own category of celebrity.

The nature of celebrity itself has changed. 25 or 30 years ago, NBA players who's teams didn't make the playoffs routinely had to take summer jobs to get by. Hall of Fame NFL QBs made less than college professors do now. The explosion of cable & satellite TV along with the internet has created a "look at me" culture of celebrity that has no true parallel in human history. Now people are famous for making fun of people, famous for eating a lot of hot dogs in a short amount of time, famous for having tons of children, and even famous for being famous.

So long as our cultural fad of celebrity endures, so will the celebrity chef.

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I think the same vehicle that helped create the celebrity chef is also slowly eroding the sheen on the stars, or at least the wanna-be's. Shows like Hells Kitchen, Next FN star show that one needs little cooking skill, just good timing, and some sort of angle to be promoted and then cast off. Anyone can do it, and who needs a stinkin' restaurant to be a famous chef?!?

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