“He’s making his own rules,” is how a full-of-himself Yelper described Grant Achatz to me the other day. ” “[Alain Passard] is a culinary god, you know, most chefs are in awe of him,” is how another referred to the well-known French chef. ” L’Arpège is a temple; Noma is a “religious experience” that “changed everything,” according to Joshua David Stein (whoever he is). Osteria Francescana will “change your life with one bite.” Food is profound, and “beyond delicious.” Chefs are visionaries and the rest of us merely unworthy pilgrims begging to bask in the aura of their brilliance.
No, no, no, no, no, fuck no, and please just shut the fuck up.
We are talking about cooks here, ladies and gentlemen. People who take raw materials and apply heat (or not) to them to make them more palatable to eat. No one is curing cancer, creating masterpieces, or doing something heroic. Those being lionized have figured out a way to seduce an always-looking-for-the-next-big-thing food press so that they (the food press) can induce the more-money-than-brains crowd to slavishly worship at the alter of some friggin’ kitchen — a kitchen that excels in eliciting oohs and ahhs from gullible customers and separating rich show-offs from their cash.
It all started when Paul Bocuse became a celebrity in his own right. (This was back in the early 1970s.) “He got the chef out of the kitchen,” is how Pierre Troisgros put it to me when I interviewed him 18 years ago. (When he uttered the words, Troigros did so with a tone of both admiration and regret. He seemed in awe of Bocuse, but also wistful for a profession he knew was changing, and that he no longer understood.)
Chefs started to be a big deal in America in the 80s, but it wasn’t until Tom “Call Me Thomas” Keller hit big with the French Laundry in ’96-’97 that the cult of chef fetishization really took off over here. Concurrent with all the hyperventilating press Keller was getting, the rise of the Food Network in the late 90s gave restaurant cooking a cache previously reserved for musicians and bad boy actors.
By 2006, every working class kid in America suddenly had path to being idolized as a “bad ass,” or, even worse, a “misunderstood, passionate genius.” All the while, the media and the audience and the chefs themselves were losing sight of the big picture: restaurant cooking is a brutally hard, physically-taxing profession, that, at its core, is about as glamorous as window-washing.
The rise of the interwebs and social media over the past 10 years has turned what was once annoying into the sublimely ridiculous. Every chef now has to have a following, and every chef worshiper is hanging on whatever lavish food porn (e.g. the panting, hagiographic, hyper-absurd Chef’s Table) or Instagrammable dish or MAJOR AWARD has been handed out that week. (Cooking has thus become more about publicity and bragging rights than taste, and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that you can’t taste publicity – or bragging rights.)
Who gives a flying fuck if Rene Redzepi is traveling the world with a pop-up restaurant reserved for the .00001% of the people able to actually eat there? Star-fucking doesn’t make anything taste any better, And as soon as a chef becomes a star, he pretty much quits cooking altogether….so what, exactly are we worshiping? I’m pleased for any chef who can parlay their skills into a brand or fame or some degree of celebrity, but when it comes to what I put in my mouth, the people I worship are the ones in the kitchen, sorting the vegetables, grilling the fish, and stirring the sauce. Mexicans, mostly.