It is strange that the kitchen attracts egos. Privately sweating over open flames, burning hands on hot pans: life in a restaurant is onerous, poorly remunerated, and with terrible margins there is the constant threat of closure. And all in the name of what, exactly? The quiet approval of a few critics and – God forbid the word – foodies.
Chefs are not usually pursued by throngs of groupies, nor do they inspire reverence and devotion from millions of misty-eyed teenagers. No rabid fan-girl is going to throw her bra at a sous chef in admiration of his mirepoix. Diners are not inclined to fits of rapturous applause. And the red carpet is reserved for beautiful actors, not weary and red-faced line cooks. The world of micro greens and basil foam is not a natural home for a showman.
And yet! The cultural dominance of the celebrity chef – which reached its acme in the mid-2000s – proved otherwise. The kitchen was full of egotistic showmen in toques and clogs ready to be fashioned into rockstars. Anthony Bourdain had a face that yearns for the limelight; Jamie Oliver was so charismatic he was plucked out of the River Café kitchen by one clever producer; Heston Blumenthal’s gimmicky show-off menus could only be consumed through the small screen.
The logic was simple: if chefs could become celebrities outside of the narrow confines of the culinary world, they could flog their wares to pretty much anyone. Books, frozen pizzas, “masterclasses”, non-stick induction-friendly frying pans. Unshackled from the kitchen, they strode into the ephemeral world of the personal brand. And so in the early 1990s the Food Network cable channel was founded in the US, and with it an entirely new ecosystem: the cook as the entertainer, the actual food a mere supporting character.
By the 2000s it seemed that the TV chef was a part of the cultural architecture. Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Oliver – the holy trinity – belonged to the highest echelon of fame in Britain. Ramsay lorded over an empire built not entirely on the back of his Michelin-starred restaurant success, but by screeching and sneering at Midwestern diner owners on Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares. Oliver’s Essex lad idiolect – spag bol, lovely jubbly, pukka – rang through the ears of the nation, like a kind of cockney tinnitus. Lawson towered over the zeitgeist as the first woman to eat butter. The TV chef was king, queen and lord of creation. Everyone involved became very rich.
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Yet note the absence of a new vanguard, a total lack of worthy successors. Where is the next Oliver? Is Blumenthal still making bacon-flavoured ice cream somewhere? It seems the path forged by the celebrity chef of the New Labour years is no longer viable. Of course there are plenty of small-scale culinary entertainers: Julius Roberts, a telegenic farmer who makes pesto in his shed; Jenny Chandler, who is heroically dominating the “beans and pulses” sphere of influence on Instagram, where you can also find a sinister French patisserie chef who sculpts dinosaurs out of chocolate. It is not particularly serious. None of them wield the clout possessed by Ramsay and Oliver, or Marco Pierre White, or even Raymond Blanc and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. This is it: the death of the celebrity chef.
The grit and nastiness inherent to Kitchen Nightmares has lost its mainstream appeal. The Noughties – with its ritual humiliation of contestants on The X Factor and the turbo-laddiness of Never Mind the Buzzcocks – could sustain such an irascible character such as Ramsay. Now this disposition has been usurped, replaced with gentle Prue Leith and a roster of bonhomie reality shows: Masterchef, The Great British Bake Off, Great British Menu.
We might think this would be fertile breeding ground for the next generation of TV chefs. Instead, most of the contestants – except for the triumphant Nadiya Hussain and Candice Brown – are granted 15 minutes of fame, usually followed by a life of relative obscurity.
We have entered the era of the post-heroic kitchen. The restaurant prevails as the brand over the celebrity’s name (how dated does “Jamie’s Italian” sound!); the chef is a cog and not the selling point of the whole endeavour; the restaurant is its own celebrity, replete with social media accounts and devoted acolytes, just as Oliver once inspired. The London restaurant St John has 263k followers on Instagram. Similarly, the eatery Noble Rot has its own magazine and merchandise line. Yet the chain Jamie’s Italian filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
There is no shortage of exciting young chefs, but they are no longer making risotto on the BBC. Instead they are back where they started – in establishments such as Brutto and the Quality Chop House, exerting influence on the food scene in a traditional sense: setting menus, challenging orthodoxies, eschewing the lure of the brand deal. This is a good thing: celebrity and cooking was an unholy matrimony. When the young and ambitious see the kitchen as a vector for fame rather than a locus for excellent food the diner invariably suffers. The guiding principle of celebrity – self-interest – is anathema to the requirements of decent hospitality.
Yet Jamie Oliver can still slap his name on a zeitgeisty book and shift millions of copies. Nigella Lawson still commands the nation’s heart like a Princess Diana of the Aga. Gordon Ramsay’s cantankerous presence looms over YouTube, and people will still pretend that Anthony Bourdain was the first white man to eat pho on a plastic stool. They’re unlikely to be replaced.
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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury