Every now and then I'll read an article about how the whole celebrity chef phenomenon is imploding or, at the very least, wearing thin. The writers will often suggest that many of these chefs spend too much time on television promoting themselves, and too little time in their restaurants cooking. I dismiss most of these comments, although anyone who says even bad publicity is good publicity didn't watch Rocco DiSpirito unravel on his nowdefunct NBC television show, The Restaurant.
Nevertheless, those who believe chefs as celebrities will eventually fade weren't at the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The event attracted some 5,000 people, and the lines to have a celebrity chef (Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Ming Tsai, Lidia Bastianich, etc.) sign cookbooks were mindblowing. The event was a fabulous group hug.
For the most part, the celebrity status chefs have achieved is a good thing. In fact, while I was in the mountains celebrating all that is good about life, Wolfgang Puck and 60-plus world-renowned chefs were back in Cleveland (home of this magazine) raising more than a million dollars for the Ireland Cancer Center. Could this event raise these kinds of dollars without the star power of a Puck? I don't think so.
With that said, I must also mention that upon my return home I had the opportunity to watch British chef Gordon Ramsay's "reality" television show Hell's Kitchen. Ramsay, a certified culinary star, has taken his cues from American Idol's Simon Cowell, while managing to be even more arrogant and nasty. He's doing nothing to improve the image of the foodservice industry on this Fox Network show. (Check out Bob Krummert's Trendinista column about chefs on television, page 26).
While I was watching Ramsay foam at the mouth, a promo for another celebrity chef-based show was aired. This one, which will begin in the fall, is based on chef Anthony Bourdain's best-selling autobiography, Kitchen Confidential. I went online for details and here's how the new sitcom is described:
Chef Jack Bourdain (not Anthony) found enormous success at a young age, but his culinary genius also led to a lifestyle of boozing, womanizing and drugs. After hitting rock bottom and deciding to sober up . . . Jack is offered an opportunity to get back in the game as head chef at a top New York restaurant. There's just one problem: the owner gives Jack a mere 48 hours to fully staff his kitchen and prepare to dazzle over 300 customers—including the food critic for the New York Times, who also happens to be a jilted ex.
Ouch! The real Bourdain (Anthony, not Jack) once described the celebrity chef phenomenon as the "new porn" for people who want to watch what they're never going to do. This new show brings his prediction one step closer to reality (TV).
For those of you who are not food celebrities, I'd suggest you read the story on page 62. It's about how restaurants in cities are uniting with a promotional strategy—Restaurant Week—to drum up business during slow periods. It's a great tactic and you can do it without making an ass of yourself on the tube.