Why I Worry About Celebrity Chefs
Celebrity chefs – have you ever wondered what that’s really all about? I share my thoughts on a cultural phenomenon whose impact is significant.
The other day my daughter asked me why I didn’t go to see Nigella Lawson when she was on her recent grand colonial tour, or why I hadn’t been interested enough to go to Melbourne to see Yotam Ottolenghi on his.
The simple truth of it was that I have never considered paying to see celebrity chefs live. Don’t get me wrong – I love the food of both of Nigella and Yotam. However, I get all I need from them from their many cookbooks, newspaper and magazine columns, television shows, television and radio interviews, podcasts … I think you get my drift.
Aside from getting up and giving us a song and dance routine, cooking my dinner or adding something new and startling to their previous food conversations (none of which they did, as far as I know) I can’t work out why I’d pay to listen to celebrity chefs talk.
But that is just what thousands around the country did. And it wasn’t cheap – according to this newspaper article, the punters paid over $100 a head to sit and bask in the presence of Nigella.
Professional cooking is now a narcissistic, high-profile industry, with significant impact. Successful restaurants are increasingly hanging their reputations on the status of prominent, influential chefs. According to one chef educator I spoke to, young, aspiring chefs are more frequently stating that, rather than developing the skills to become a good, exciting or innovative cook, their over-riding goal is to be a celebrity chef.
Growing numbers of celebrity chefs compete with each other for relevance, valuable sponsorship deals and influence – and that influence should not be underestimated. These are people who tell us how to shop and eat, impacting food production, our diets, our families and our health.
Our infatuation with them is dumbing us down. Rather than make food decisions for ourselves, we look to celebrities to do it for us. We slavishly follow their lead in food trends and culinary fashions, with little or no consideration of why they might be promoting them, or their long-term impact.
An example – one of the three popular judges and public faces of Masterchef, the money-spinning foodie hit of our times, Gary Mehigan, has made a ‘life-changing’ decision and is now also a public ambassador for the newly rebranded ‘WW’ (formerly Weight Watchers).
Back in 2014 it was estimated that Gary and his pals were taking home $1 million a year for their roles in Masterchef, a cooking show that in no way promotes calorific restraint. One can only guess what that annual haul has increased to, and wonder what ‘WW’ are paying him to promote the undoing of the excesses he bangs the drum for in his other day job.
Oops, sorry – is my cynicism showing?
Popular Adelaide enfant terrible chef Duncan Welgemoed (himself no stranger to the camera, and currently one of the Gourmet Traveller /Harvey Norman-sponsored Gourmet Institute chefs – make of that what you will) recently took the stage at an international food conference to discuss some of the problems around the culture of celebrity chefs.
In his (excellent) speech he cited a study that found that those who follow celebrity culture are the least engaged in politics and the least likely to engage with public issues. In buying into the culture of celebrity we give others permission to influence us and, in general, groupies choose devotion to an unreachable, constructed figure whose motives should always be open to speculation, over active engagement in their own immediate and wider communities.
So – just before you allow yourself to swoon at the latest pearls of wisdom to drop from the lips of Jamie or Pete Evans, perhaps you might consider the amount of people who are fascinated with celebrity in general and think about the ongoing, broader social impact of that.