Star (stär), n. 1. Any of the luminous bodies seen in the heavens. 2. A
conventional figure having five or more points, representing a star. 3. A person of brilliant qualities, who stands out pre-eminently among their peers.
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
Chefs are not rock stars. Chefs are managers, business people, and sometimes entrepreneurs, but mostly chefs are cooks, at least the good ones are. But the media insists the contrary.
Take the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine (October 2003). Here's one of the most well-known and respected food and dining magazines in the world and on their cover they have five chefs in mock rock star poses under the heading CHEFS ROCK, and they're referred to as "The Band." These aren't flash-in-the-pan chefs; they've paid their dues in the kitchen. Yet there they are, dressed like clean-cut pseudo-rock stars pretending to play their makeshift instruments made of kitchen equipment. One chef is even jumping in the air, arms flailed with a vampire-like expression on his face. The singer, with tight white pants and black t-shirt, offers her bared mid-drift while fake-singing into a whisk. What makes matters worse is that the accompanying story has nothing to do with any of their culinary expertise, it's about what went on behind the scenes at the photo shoot. I find the image uncomfortable. It's about as staged as a setting can get, but not on a real stage. I can't imagine why they let themselves be photographed in such an unbecoming way (no matter how much they were paid).
This isn't the only instance of this absurdity; we're being bombarded with it. A search on the internet for "celebrity chefs" yielded more than a million hits, and the Food Network blares 24/7. Inside the same issue of Gourmet Magazine there's a pullout section of "chef cards" (imagine baseball cards only with chefs on them). On the backs of the cards they offer the collector such intimate facts as: I'm an identical twin, or Chef Wendy would like to study concert piano at Julliard. I saw a series of these cards a few years ago where they listed which hand the chef sautés with, as if they were baseball players. In that same series I saw Rocco DiSpirito, who at the time was considered a "rising star."
Rocco and I were in the same graduating class at The Culinary Institute in the mid-1980s. I remember him as being a gangly and energetic teenager, but mostly I remember him as being serious about learning to be a chef. For this reason I tuned into his reality show called The Restaurant. I watched it for only about fifteen minutes. It made me mad that countless viewers across America now think that's what restaurant work is like. I assure you it is not; it's the farthest thing from reality. The president of The National Restaurant Association was so appalled that he wrote a scathing letter to the show's executives.
The image of chef-as-star is fed to chefs also. In the national magazine, Food Arts, there's a full-page advertisement each month by Vita-Prep, a company that sells powerful blenders. Their monthly display is called Famous Chefs Naked with Their Blenders, and there's a web site that sells the series as a calendar. It shows a different chef each month wearing nothing but their birthday suit. They're mostly male chefs who usually have the blender strategically placed in front of a certain appendage, but sometimes there are females, which are seductively curled with their mechanical equipment, hiding their essential privies. I don't know about you, but I prefer seeing a chef with their cloths on.
This constant bombardment of the chef as being something more than they are has no doubt fueled the egos of many (there's even a media firm outside Boston that specializes in training chefs for television). And because of this, culinary schools are springing up over night. What many of the starry-eyed aspiring chefs don't realize is that in true reality (opposed to the pretend reality of TV) most chefs work long, hot, busy and grueling hours, late nights, and on weekends and holidays, and in relation to the hours that they work the pay is often low.
I'm not trying to say that celebrating the chef's craft is bad-I've faced the stove for 25 years and its nice to have our craft acknowledged-it's just that in many instances it's unrealistic and even bordering on ridiculous. There's a big difference between being acknowledged than being made a caricature. If you believed everything you saw on TV or in the press you'd think that chefs never broke a sweat, that they spend their days picking herbs in beautiful gardens on beautiful days and cook solely for beautiful people. In reality many of the best chefs are not household names because they spend their days and nights in the kitchen, not a studio; these are the true stars.
André Soltner, chef and educator, who owned the New York restaurant Lutèce for 35 years, was at the stove every night; if he took a day off the restaurant closed. Chef Soltner is often quoted as reminding chefs that "we are merely venders of soup," referring to the humble beginnings of the professional cook. But my favorite and somewhat less eloquent quote is by Gordon Ramsay, a well-known chef/restaurateur in Britain: "Some chefs think they're rock stars, but don't forget we cook for a living, sweat our balls off in a hot environment, and there's nothing glamorous about that."