The Cult of the Celebrity Chef Goes Global

They start behind the counter and end up in the spotlight. How the phenomenon of the celebrity chef has transformed the restaurant industry and even changed the way we eat

  • Finlay MacKay for TIME

    From left, chefs David Chang of New York City's Momofuku; Jamie Oliver, aka Britain's Naked Chef; and Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli.

    David Chang was asleep in his aisle seat on a recent flight to Melbourne when searing pain jolted him awake: a flight attendant had accidentally spilled boiling water on his arm. That the worst scalding of the Manhattan megachef's life occurred in business class rather than in a busy kitchen was perhaps surprising. But that was nothing compared with what awaited him on the ground. Soon after he landed, news of the accident made the Australian papers and then, thanks to the global hum of diligent foodies at their keyboards, quickly appeared on websites around the world. The shocking headline: "Chef Burned."

    It's been a few decades since we started turning cooks into stars, and still the phenomenon continues to grow. These days, the Emerils, Marios and Gordons of the world scarcely need the qualifier chef — they are celebrities, plain and simple. But between the television shows, the food festivals, the Vegas outposts, the spaghetti-sauce labels bearing their names and the fans rabidly tracking everything from new dishes to failed love affairs and, yes, accidental airline injuries, it's easy to overlook the impact that fame has had on the once disparaged profession of cooking. In the Food Network era, the phenomenon of the celebrity chef has utterly transformed the restaurant industry and, in the process, changed the very nature of how we eat.

    There's a reason restaurant food sales in the U.S. have jumped from $42.8 billion in 1970 to a projected $520 billion in 2010, and it's not just that more women have entered the workforce. As best-selling food author Michael Pollan recently noted, the age of the TV chef has coincided with a dramatic decline in home cooking. Pollan, who was named by TIME as one of this year's 100 most influential people in the world — as was Chang — argued that by making food a spectacle, shows like Iron Chef and The F Word have reinforced the message that cooking is best left to the professionals. By turning chefs into entertainers — whether performing onscreen or via the impeccable platings in their restaurants — we have widened the breach between ourselves and the once ordinary task of cooking.

    And yet our alienation from food and its preparation is matched only by our obsession with it. Huge parts of the population now seek out artisanal cheeses at their local farmers' markets, and run-of-the-mill restaurants attempt to cater to their newly refined tastes, serving salads made of fancy lettuce. Lots of ordinary folk now aspire to have their own $1,100 Thermomix food processor and blog about every course of every restaurant meal they eat. (The camera-happy movement has gotten so bad that Grant Achatz, the famously avant-garde chef of Chicago's Alinea, recently chastised diners who take photos — and video — of the food he serves.) These trends are fed by chefs' newfound prominence but also prod them to attain ever greater influence. In a world in which what and how we eat have become fetishized, celebrity chefs are finding new ways to harness their star power — and not just to make money.

    The Start of the Rock-Star Chef
    The term Foodie was coined in the early 1980s, at about the same time Wolfgang Puck began serving gourmet pizzas at his buzzy Spago restaurant in Los Angeles. But it took another decade before Puck really kicked off the celebrity phenomenon by turning his attention to the culinary desert that was Las Vegas. At the time, everyone thought he was crazy. Crazy, too, the cable channel (today's Food Network) that launched a few months later in 1993, in the remarkable belief that audiences would watch round-the-clock food programming. The same adjective would also apply across the ocean, to Britain's enfant terrible Marco Pierre White, who by 1995 had not only become the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars but also had a reputation for ejecting customers who were critical of his food. "Those stories you heard about him, about how he would be shagging someone's wife upstairs while her husband was eating in the dining room downstairs," says Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the British newspaper the Observer , "that was the start of the rock-star chef."

    It's not that there weren't famous cooks before then. As far back as the 19th century, Europe's aristocracy was agog about Marie-Antoine Carême's elaborate dishes. And within more recent memory, Julia Child used television to help turn America's housewives on to the glories of the French table and to turn herself into a star. But none of that comes close to the renown of today's celebrity chefs, which can be attributed not only to the multiple restaurants and bad-boy personas but also to Food Network. Today the channel averages a million viewers a day and is so popular that in late May it launched a culinary spin-off called Cooking Channel, whose programming will include new shows with Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Culinary programs are also populating major networks like Fox, which this month began airing its seventh season of Hell's Kitchen . In that show, Gordon Ramsay, the five-continent chef whose offscreen empire includes restaurants in Dubai and Cape Town, berates low-skill contestants into becoming better cooks. Ramsay and Bravo's popular Top Chef series have prompted NBC and CBS to prep their own reality-kitchen shows.

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