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The Rise of the Celebrity Chef: Background information when reading Hungry

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Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World

by Jeff Gordinier

Hungry by Jeff Gordinier X
Hungry by Jeff Gordinier
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 240 pages
    Jul 2020, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

The Rise of the Celebrity Chef

This article relates to Hungry

Print Review

Celebrity chef Julia Child cookingJeff Gordinier, the author of Hungry (about his travels with René Redzepi), dates the concept of the modern celebrity chef to 1990, when Marco Pierre White, a London chef with a famously fiery temper, released the cookbook White Heat. A decade later, Anthony Bourdain, who had a similar bad-boy image powered by sex and drug use, published Kitchen Confidential. Gordon Ramsay was something of a British counterpart: a foul-mouthed cook who doesn't suffer fools and demands authenticity from food. Gordinier refers to such chefs as the "rock stars" of the industry.

A number of the cultural icons who have influenced our thinking about food have never managed a restaurant kitchen, though. Think of Julia Child, who published the cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, but was best known for television. Her show, The French Chef, began airing in 1963, and ran for 10 years with a total of 206 episodes – a record for PBS. Child helped make French cuisine accessible to ordinary Americans through this and two later TV programs.

In the UK, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson have played a similar role, teaching viewers basic cooking skills. Smith first graced British TV sets in 1973, and soon became "the face of home cooking." And according to Nick Piper, author of the piece "Celebrity Chefs" in the anthology Food Words: Essays in Culinary Culture, Nigella Lawson's voluptuous image and warm presence make her a potential role model in another way, serving as a "postfeminist exemplar" of "enjoyment through indulgence."

In the past few decades, celebrity chefs have alternated between the dual purposes of educating and entertaining. If the second function has ultimately been more important for TV ratings and book sales, the former still holds true culturally. For instance, American chef Alice Waters is a proponent of organic food, while across the pond, Jamie Oliver has advocated for healthier school lunches, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall investigates issues like food waste, plastic pollution and the sustainability of fish stocks. Many celebrity chefs also encourage people to eat locally and to consider the ethics of where their food comes from.

The Food Network (launched in the U.S. in 1993) was responsible for the success of cooks such as Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, and reality TV shows like Top Chef and Masterchef and The Great British Bake Off (known as The Great British Baking Show in America) continue to make and break culinary careers.

However, food critic Tim Hayward, writing in The Observer last year, prophesied that the age of the restaurant chef turned TV celebrity is coming to a close, perhaps because a TV deal is no longer seen as the pinnacle of achievement. "There will always be cooks on telly and there will always be brilliant chefs working quietly, but the days of the old-fashioned celebrity chef, bestriding both worlds like a dyspeptic colossus are numbered." Hayward suggests that food TV is now seen as passé and so cannot attract new talent.

In his framework, Redzepi is an example of a "brilliant chef working quietly" – while he has appeared in a few TV documentaries, he's not quite a household name, but certainly a legend in the restaurant world.

Photo: Julia Child, courtesy of Lynn Gilbert

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Hungry. It originally ran in July 2019 and has been updated for the July 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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