In June, for years, I've been going to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and I'm always blown away by the enormous crowds of people — your customers — who come to see the Brads and Angelinas of the culinary world. What was once a quaint event is now a full-blown spectacle.
Chefs as stars is a mind-boggling phenomenon. There's very little glamorous about working on your feet for long, often uncomfortable hours, but here in Aspen, and on an everyday level around the country, many chefs are imbued with a Hollywood status. And what better place to celebrate this phenomenon than in Aspen, where numerous Hollywood stars have homes? [While many of us sipped on a Ribera del Duero in the Spanish wine tent, actor Charlie Sheen was embroiled in a plea agreement in the nearby courthouse for an alleged domestic donnybrook with his wife; but I digress.]
For a guy who spends a lot of time with chefs, I couldn't be happier for them, though there are far too many kids in culinary school who are more focused on stardom than knife skills. The thought of celebrity, fame and fortune can be distracting. But here's something interesting about fame that became apparent at this year's Aspen event. One afternoon, two of America's greatest chefs — Jose Andres and David Chang — were cooking in a courtyard at an invite-only luncheon. A throng of gawkers held at bay on the fringes of the courtyard wanted desperately to get into the luncheon. When Andres and Chang finally emerged from Hotel Jerome's kitchen into the courtyard, the gawkers were deflated. “Who are they,” several kept asking. They had no idea.
Yet at other events throughout the weekend where Giada De Laurentiis and Tom Colicchio were cooking or signing books, people not only knew them, they fought desperately to get near them. The celebrities in question are television stars. For that they [we]can thank the Food Network and Bravo's Top Chef. It speaks to the power of national media exposure, though few will ever achieve that level of media attention.
Clearly, America has a growing love affair with food, but it still can't compete with its love affair for celebrity. One morning during the Aspen event, which presumably attracts “foodies,” Iron Chef Michael Symon did a cooking demo showing consumer attendees how to roast a chicken and prepare mac and cheese. Hardly molecular gastronomy, but Symon knew who he was cooking for — his fans, many of whom can't roast a bird or much else. Still, most of those who attended that demo weren't interested in Symon's mac recipe. They wanted to see that famous bald head and hear his crazy cackle.
Ultimately, most will not achieve the level of fame as Giada, Tom or Michael, but you can be an autograph signer in your city. Though that's never the end goal. If you can't cook the socks off your competitors and put butts in seats, the rest is meaningless.