behind the news

Too Many Cooks

Celebrity chefs enjoy their media moment
June 9, 2010

There they are again, this time on the front of the Washington Post Style section. It’s the celebrity chefs, and this time they’re in service to First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign against childhood obesity.

The latest Style section snapshot of the culinary elites preceded a larger White House gathering of chefs who are every bit as serious about school nutrition as they are about a $28 chunk of pan roasted Arctic char with orange and rosemary beurre blanc.

We are in the age of the unavoidable cook. They won’t stay in the kitchen unless someone puts a camera in there.

Chef profiles crowd the pages of city magazines such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Washingtonian. These publications track the career paths and great thoughts of chefs the way the old Sporting News used to follow All-Star shortstops.

Celebrity chefs overrun HBO’s clever Treme, though it must be said the shiny, self-satisfied chaps playing themselves in a ruined post-Katrina New Orleans are well behaved, unlike the gaggle of posturing gangsta chefs who torment waiters and rail (generally in British and French accents) on cable television.

Gordon Ramsay, for example, presides over Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen like volcanic actor Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, though in real-world terms he’s about a scary as crème brulee.

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Ramsay’s normally affable British colleague Jamie Oliver, the tousle-haired “Naked Chef,” recently took his Food Revolution on ABC to Huntington, W. Va.

The locals, having been identified by the Centers for Disease Controls as particularly pitiful examples of lard-based American consumption, handed Oliver his colander when he toyed with the school lunch menu.

“They don’t understand me,” Oliver whinged to the press, and he wasn’t talking about his accent. For the moment, the “Food Revolution” will not be televised.

Anthony Bourdain, a prominent chef and frequent author perpetually angry about something, has a new book: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Check, please.

The quality of the food in this new celebrity driven universe can be left for others to judge. But there is little doubt that the publicity machinery for the “top chefs” is four-star.

Consider the Cleveland-based Michael Symon, one of the Food Network’s “Iron Chefs.” He has mounted a heart-healthy campaign to keep resident basketball superstar LeBron James in the greater Cuyahoga County area.

Symon announced he would cook for James and his friends once a month if the big guy would re-sign with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

It seems like a middling incentive for James, who reportedly makes $15 million a year to play hoops and owns a $29 million endorsement contract from Nike. He could fly to Paris every week for dinner. But that doesn’t mean every news outlet from NBC to Yahoo Sports didn’t cover Symon’s offer.

The man’s a chef. Send a crew.

On May 2, Washington chef Jose Andres—one of Michelle Obama’s high-profile backers in the obesity battle—was the subject of an adoring 60 Minutes profile.

The fawning segment, which would have made Donald Trump uncomfortable, focused on Andres’s modest roots and his charitable work.

But when Andres began to feed CBS interrogator Anderson Cooper in the chef’s fashionable, six-seat “Minibar by Jose Andres” establishment, a viewer could have been forgiven for thinking the Dalai Lama had gone into the restaurant business.

“Minibar is window into creativity, that’s all,” said Andres, earning a nod from Cooper.

Last month, Chicago Sun-Times Washington reporter Lynn Sweet felt obliged to apologize to Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who had been drafted by the Obama message machine to assist in a May 19 state dinner for the president of Mexico.

It seems Bayless, demonstrating the professional modesty that characterizes his line of work, had sent a Twitter message or three about his White House culinary experience to his legions of cilantro-happy fans.

Twittering from inside the White House is in violation of some twenty-first century edict, as Sweet reported. Bayless swore on his garlic press that he did not engage in online social networking while actually on site at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The whole enchilada wound up in Politico, The Washington Post, all available Chicago media, and a raft of food blogs, and Sweet opted to apologize.

The brouhaha might have been fueled by the fact that Bayless had given interviews about his bond with the Obamas and his “guest White House chef” status to The New York Times and NPR.

It’s no secret that after the gate-crashing fiasco at the Obama’s first state dinner, Bayless’s dear friends were determined to keep the gala a low-key affair until the plates were being cleared.

But in Chef World, publicity is seated at the other end of the food chain from salt: Too much is never enough.

Steve Daley is a former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.