Aristotle thought that knowing about food was incompatible with a virtuous life - kitchen matters were best left to slaves. This attitude was widespread in the ancient world, and it stayed pretty much intact right up to the 19th century, if you substitute the word "servants" for "slaves". In the 21st century, by contrast, knowing about food has become a mark of high status - as the extraordinary wealth of celebrity chefs proves. It was recently revealed that almost all our leading chefs are multi-millionaires. The incorrigible alpha-male Gordon Ramsay leads the way with £67m, followed by Jamie Oliver (£58m) and Rick Stein (£36m). Even Antony Worrall Thompson is worth £21m. Chefs, it seems, are the new aristocrats - or at least the new plutocrats. Whether cooking is compatible with the good life is beside the point; what's clear is that, if you're successful, it is very good indeed for your bank balance.
I myself have had a glimpse of the cachet that attaches to being a chef. After university I flirted with the idea of a career as a cook. A few months of being shouted at by borderline psychos was the extent to which I pursued my ambition; I then quit for the relative serenity of office life. When I tell people about this, a look of incredulity often spreads over their faces. "You were a chef. And you gave it up to become a . . . journalist?" they ask. From their expressions you can tell how their estimations of my alternative futures compare: on the one hand, there's the fertile apprenticeship at the feet of some culinary maestro, the eponymous restaurant, TV appearances, bestselling cookbooks, a life spent mingling with rock stars and footballers; on the other hand, there's me, hunched over a word processor, churning out copy for a small circle of readers - and not even being allowed to swear!
The good news is that, in today's world, it is perfectly possible to pretend that you're a chef even if you are nothing of the sort. As the brochure for the flat I recently moved into proclaimed: "With its large, modern kitchen, you can indulge all your celebrity chef fantasies." If ever I'm in need of extra props, I head out to Waitrose, which has recently introduced a "Cooks' Ingredients" range. In marketing terms, it is a stroke of genius: everyday products are repackaged to make them seem integral components of any self-respecting chef's store cupboard. There are jars of pre-minced garlic, ginger and chilli; plastic packets of stock; bottles of exotic oils and vinegars ("truffle lemon-infused olive oil", "white balsamic condiment"); dried porcini mushrooms and a selection of "wild" herbs. My favourite is the "balsamic glaze", which comes in a squeezy bottle, and with which one is advised to "decorate dinner plates". Armed with tools such as these, all of us can feel better about the fact that we are not Gordon Ramsay.