Style over substance: Do celebrity chefs matter?
While I was attending a gathering of the world’s top chefs at the “G9 World Summit of Gastronomy” in Tokyo last year, at least half a dozen strangers asked me to photograph them next to their favorite star chefs.
The G9 chefs were chosen by Ferran Adria, of the now-defunct, triple-Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant elBulli, and the group had been scheduled to give a presentation on the topic of gastronomy and social responsibility.
The event drew a surprisingly large crowd.
After last year’s G9 meeting, in Lima, Peru, a scathing piece by British food writer Jay Rayner described the group’s mission statement, entitled “Open letter to the chefs of tomorrow,” as “an act of ... such ludicrous self-regard you’d need an oxygen tank to get your breath back.”
That pronouncement delivered a satisfying dose of schadenfreude to those exasperated by the cult of the celebrity chef.
Perhaps as a result of this and other criticisms, the presentation I saw in Tokyo was modest but somewhat unfocused.
The chefs talked about food as a medium of cultural exchange, expressed hope for the recovery of areas in northeastern Japan affected by the March 2011 earthquake and lauded developments in sustainable agriculture made in Japan.
All hot air?
It makes sense that chefs should want to promote sustainable and ethical food production, biodiversity and environmental conservation, but what had sparked the negative reactions in Lima?
Maybe it was the reference to being a “bridge with other countries,” or the assertion that chefs “practice a profession that has the power to affect the socioeconomic development of others” that prompted the world to roll its eyes.
Creative types make overblown statements about their contributions to society all the time, and the idea that star chefs have big egos is news to no one.
The thing that rankled was the elitism associated with the industry as a whole, and the realm of fine dining in particular.
“Food at that level doesn’t connect with everyday lives,” a friend told me when I brought up the question of whether top chefs can bring about shifts in public consciousness.
Another friend was more dismissive: “Why do people care about what chefs think anyway?”
Thanks to their strong presence in the mass media, chefs now enjoy an unprecedented level of fame.
Reality TV shows such as “Top Chef” and “MasterChef”have ushered the profession into popular culture.
There are countless blogs devoted to food, and food-centric websites such as Eater get millions of hits per day.
“Chefs today have become celebrities in the same way that supermodels were celebrities in the 1990s,” Brazilian chef Alex Atala told me.
In many ways, it’s an apt comparison. A number of similarities exist between the worlds of fashion and food.
Food, like fashion, has become highly fetishized, styled and photographed for seductive spreads in glossy magazines.
The parallels are closer between high fashion and haute cuisine: both are born of opulence, and both rely on a niche audience of wealthy patrons for their survival.
More on CNN: Ferran Adria, the wizard of gastronomy
But food is a more loaded issue. It's at the core of our identities, a reflection of culture and, increasingly, politics.
The idea that one kind of food should be valued over another treads on sensitive emotional ground.
More on CNN: Why do people take their food so serioulsy?
High-concept haute cuisine is even more controversial. Like many abstract aesthetic pursuits, it requires specific knowledge and an open mind.
It’s intended to be intellectually -- and at times sensorially -- challenging.
If you’re unprepared, the experience can feel like an exercise in endurance, akin to sitting through a concert of atonal music when you were expecting Mozart.
It is, in short, not for everyone.
Nor can everyone afford it. The first time I paid the bill at a super-high-end restaurant, I nearly went into cardiac arrest. It was around US$900 for dinner for two.
I had to keep smiling for fear that I’d start crying.
But top chefs are influencing people who will never eat at their restaurants in subtle ways.
While sales of luxury items have declined over the past four years, restaurant revenues have increased.
Consumers are now electing to spend their money on experiences, rather than material goods.
“It’s not only about going to restaurants,” a branding consultant for the alcohol company Pernod Ricard told me recently. “It might be the decision to go on a trip or build a garden. Indirectly, celebrity chefs are making people aware of other choices.”
An act of such ludicrous self-regard you’d need an oxygen tank to get your breath back.
More pertinent, though, is how chefs are changing ideas of what is acceptable to eat and exposing people to new possibilities.
Fergus Henderson, of the restaurant St. John in London, has encouraged a new generation to embrace “nose-to-tail” dining.
More recently, high-profile chefs such as René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen), Alex Atala (D.O.M., São Paulo) and José Andrés (Oyamel, Washington, D.C.) have been experimenting with putting insects on the menu.
In a 2010 interview on NPR, Redzepi described various ways in which even leaves and bark could be used as a spice.
“When you see all these great forests, I just see food everywhere,” he said.
That’s more than just a good sound bite.
It’s a beautiful, uncomplicated sentiment, one that I was surprised to hear repeated to me by a self-proclaimed anti-foodie friend of mine in San Francisco.
Clearly, these changes don't represent seismic shifts in consciousness.
Without concrete plans of action to turn ideas into public policy, the range of influence wielded by chefs will always be limited.
Not every chef can be a convincing activist, but the best can make people think more about what’s on the plate.
More on CNN: How to shop like a Michelin chef
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melinda Joe.
Originally published October 2012, updated March 22, 2013.
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