As I slog my way up the mountain towards the restaurant where I work, I realize in the blinding snow that I have zigged when I should have zagged and am no longer on the right road. I peer out the window for a moment, a little exasperated, wondering how in the world that the road was suddenly flat. It’s nearly a 2500 foot climb up the mountain to the restaurant, a veritable yawn in the minds of most mountaineers and climbers, but it’s no fun when you can’t see. I go a few more feet, then stop. I started to instinctively pull over, but I realized the futility of that particular endeavor. Pull over where? I realize what I’ve done pretty quickly, in a hard turn I had just simply kept going straight into a neighbors drive.
I retraced my steps and got back into the truck, finding my way along by the interior lights. I’d left my lights on inside the cab and slammed the door behind me, shutting out the howl of the wind. I wonder, and not for the first time, “What on earth am I doing here? At 5:00 a.m., wheeling through the snow on the eve of April Fool’s Day to a dark kitchen newly remodeled and a yet-to-be-determined number of hungry guests who most likely will all be demanding the Southern Special, which is waffles with buttermilk and soy marinated chicken which is dipped in pancake batter, rolled in panko and then quickly deep fried. No wonder they like it so much. I do too, one of the perks of the trade, but one that you can rarely indulge in. Despite what they tell you, no one likes a fat cook.
Unless it was the early years of the Food Network, of course, when Chefs like Emeril and Mario were just starting their television careers. They captivated audiences by their antics on stage on the screen. Nothing seemed to be scripted or even planned. I believe that I remember reading somewhere that Mario once set himself on fire on a set and they just rolled the camera. He finished what he was doing and then put himself out with all of the alarm of a man feeding his cat. Then along came Giada, sporting major cleavage and a Joker smile that wrapped around her head like a guilty pez dispenser. Then Food Network gave us Anthony Bourdain, who was adored by every starving cook on the planet and greatly confused nearly everyone else outside of the cooking world. But, he did something that Emeril and Mario did not – he made cooking cool. His unsympathetic, unglamorous attitude in the kitchen and constant sarcasm to nearly all things commercial while railing against established authority made all of us nearly green with envy.
Even now, as I slog my way up the mountain in the snow, I think of what Bourdain did and did not accomplish in those early days. He did take the FN in a new direction. He did attract thousands, perhaps millions of people to the channel with his brutal honesty and rock star mentality. He did cause chaos in the binding world as they struggled to keep up as millions of people flocked to buy his books.
What he didn’t do was bond well with the new powers that be at FN. They recognized, and smartly so, that his on and off-screen antics and tendency to tell things exactly the way he felt they were had no place in niche market that could be pushed mainstream with the right marketing strategy.
So, it began. The glamorization of a life spent in a kitchen, which seemed to consist more of driving around in classic muscle cars with spikey hair goofing on people’s restaurants than cooking. Giada was showing more cleavage than ever, not that anyone minded, and Paula Deen took the center stage, along with the Martha Stewart looking and acting Sandra Lee, whom I’ve always confused with a truly terrible frozen cake. Beauty started taking center stage and real cooks started realizing, “Hey, these guys aren’t COOKING anymore!” It’s still about food, I guess, but something went missing.
Then came the rise and continued arc of this new thing, a new actor on the stage set by money and market capitalization. The “CELEBRITY CHEF!” The first of such creatures were almost embarrassed to be on film, embarrassed to have everyone screaming their name after live cooking demonstrations that rivaled rock concerts. They had after all, clawed their way up through the ranks within kitchens, most with dubious if not outright sketchy backgrounds and were most definitely not schooled on how to behave on or off the camera.
That wasn’t enough for the FN either. Mainstream still wasn’t there. The show was attracting more and more cooks who could identify with the people they saw on screen, but it was rapidly becoming a cult phenomenon, which the executives could not bear. Not with the millions of people out there just waiting to scarf up high-dollar cooking appliances and decorate their million dollar condos with 50,000 dollars in high end kitchen equipment that they would neither use nor aspire to use. THAT was who the FN was after.
So, they created a superstar. Their very own Chefs. Chefs, it seems, now grow on chef trees out in California somewhere, or maybe in the basement of the FN executives’ house, watered with champagne and ruby lips, cultivated with perfect hair and smiles and dressed in tailored Chefs Whites. Along the way, the very definition of the title “Chef” was corrupted. It came to represent anyone who wanted to call themselves such, no matter what their background was or how fuzzy their resume, printed, of course, on linen paper.
A Chef, by definition, is: “A skilled cook who manages a full kitchen.” Earliest recorded use of the term is in 1840, by of course, the French. They generally aren’t all that good-looking, usually complete with nervous tics, superstitions, older, wrinkled and wise beyond what you think.
A Celebrity Chef, however, is someone, anyone, who can look good on camera while talking smoothly. It doesn’t matter if they can actually cook or not, these new so-called Celebrity Chefs.
As I enter my kitchen that morning, I am thankful to be reporting in to an actual Chef, one who runs the kitchen, one who can chop, julienne, flavor, taste, fire, hire and make the majority of the decisions for me. I don’t have to worry about my lack of a six-pack or my hair. I don’t have to wear designer clothes or have limos pick me up in Eggleston, VA to shuttle me to my magazine shoot while my flunkies, or even better yet, someone else’s flunkies do my work for me. No, I’m happy to do my job, identify with the items that I prepare, and be grateful for the opportunity to get to cook for money. Not a lot of money either. I do it for the challenge, for the food, for the experience and for myself.
If I never have to do a photoshoot for a non-stick, self-sharpening, never-needs-cleaning CHEFS KNIFE that doubles as an IPOD, I’ll be even happier. But thanks, to everyone who has called me Chef Ron. I’ll take the compliment and remember that a cook is only as good as his Chef.