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Are celebrity chefs sellouts?

It’s good that David Chang apologised for trying to take ownership of chili crunch, but we still have to tackle the wacky concept of a celebrity chef

With the rise of celebrity chefs has the concept of food shifted from flavours to branding?(Freepik)

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 20.04.2024  |  02:00 PM IST

David Chang’s public apology and the announcement that his company Momofuku would back off of an attempt to trademark the term “chili crunch" feel like standard damage control for a popular chef and the empire he’s built.

Like any sensible leader, politician, or public figure serving as a hood ornament to an operation, it’s easier to say you’re sorry and retreat than stand by your convictions unless you want to be ousted, too.

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While the debacle has left a sour taste in many mouths, Chang isn’t the main problem. The issue is the wacky concept of a “celebrity chef."

It’s come to mean a professionally-trained or even amateur cook who happens to have a bubbly or colorful personality for TV and is willing to ham it up for the camera while holding a chef’s knife in their hand. If they’re excessively charismatic (or irritating), they may find themselves with their own shows, cookbooks, podcasts, cookware lines, condiments and restaurants.

Before you know it, they’re sitting on top of a conglomerate. While it makes sense to want to make a profit off your name, image and likeness, the food industry has become a branding wasteland. The commercialized influence has caused what used to be the star—the food—to take a backseat. And any chef that is OK with that is a sellout.

About 30 years ago, when I used to sit with my mom and watch cooking shows on TV, the biggest personality on the Food Network was David Rosengarten. Have you heard of him? Probably not. He was a warm, welcoming character who put viewers at ease while also educating them about the meals he was preparing. There was a refinement about him. Then, somewhere in the misty haze of the ’90s, Emeril Lagasse BAM-ed his way to stardom and the entire channel began to shift from a Saveur Magazine vibe, where the art of cooking was intellectually explored, to a WWE-meets-QVC-meets-Survivor-meets-talk show format where viewers could overindulge on vivacious TV personalities and the food was secondary.

It seems like overnight, the public’s idea of a chef shifted from a wise, worldly, unglamorous presenter like Rosengarten or Julia Child. And we, the general public, bought in hard. Today, by one estimate, the net worth of the wealthiest chefs range from Ina Garten at about $50 million to Jamie Oliver at around $300 million.

It’s a stunning contrast to what the average chef in the United States takes home: around $51,000 annually, according to Salary.com.

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In an increasingly homogenous culinary landscape, how will authenticity and originality thrive? Certainly not at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill or David Chang’s Momofuku or Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips, offering watered-down, overpriced versions of the cultural cuisines they’re claiming to spotlight.

Social media’s domination in producing content has exacerbated the industry’s shift. In a sea of aspirational chefs and home cooks looking to be the next Fieri, Chang, Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, the ones with the fanciest video edits, marketable personalities and viral recipes tend to secure monetization, sponsorships or land a book deal.

And for many who aspire to launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant, securing a loan or finding investors is nearly impossible without an existing media presence because banks consider it a high-risk venture. The reality is that being a working chef is not glamorous, but I want to believe that most people who cook for a living, whether famous or not, start a career in the field because they love it.

That’s what made Anthony Bourdain so special. He worked in kitchens for 28 years before he became known. He saw where the industry was headed and used his newfound fame to put the focus back on food. He loved and respected how it had the power to teach and bring people together, rebelling against the salesman-like construct of a celebrity chef and even turning down endorsement and product line offers.

We need more chefs with influence to think like him, but it can’t stop there. Consumers need to be on the same page. If you value authenticity, quality and innovation in cuisine, consider who you’re giving most of your time and money to. Is it to working chefs who spend hours toiling in high-pressure and demanding restaurants, often in poor conditions and for little pay? Or to multi-millionaires trying to make you believe that you absolutely need whatever they’re selling? 

Written by Raj Tawney, an essayist and journalist who writes about family, food and culture, is the author of 'Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience' and 'All Mixed Up,' which will be released in fall 2024.

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