Celebrity or Chef? You Can’t Really Be Both

The farther chefs gravitate away from the kitchen, the less culinary value they have

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Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Chef Todd English does a food demonstration at a book party in New York City on Dec. 15, 2011

When I asked Tom Colicchio, Top Chef’s lead judge and one of the most visible of American chefs, about the Braiser, the all-celebrity-chef news site that launched Monday, he cut me off before I could even finish the question.

“I hate that phrase,” he said. “It makes no distinction between a chef who is on TV and a TV celebrity who cooks onscreen. Maybe I’m a chef celebrity? I mean, really? I think it’s just dumb.”

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A lot of people seem to have that reaction. Celebrity chef seems to be one of those titles, like televangelist or pink slime, that automatically elicits a critical reaction. As a celebrity chef himself, albeit a skeptical one, and hence one of the figures whose existence the Braiser exists to chronicle, Colicchio is not the intended reader of the site. But who is? The Braiser is smarter than might be expected and hopes, its creators claim, to be somewhat critical in its coverage; it launched with a long interview with Anthony Bourdain, the scourge of celebrity chefdom, one of his longest and most nuanced to date. (Headline: “Anthony Bourdain on Why the Best Celebrity Chefs Just Don’t ‘Give a F*CK.'”)

But at the same time, the Braiser is a site about celebrity chefs. Alongside the Bourdain interview are pieces about or linking to Masaharu Morimoto flubbing the first pitch at a Phillies game, a listicle about “The 13 Most Infamous Chef Feuds” and a Food Network Star recap. “We are serving a huge community,” editor Verena von Pfetten says, “that looks at chefs as celebrities … it’s not about the cooking; it’s about them as people.” Neither von Pfetten nor the site’s other two editors have any background even in food blogging; the site is the latest in media macher Dan Abrams’ Web portfolio and takes its place alongside sister niche sites about media (Mediaite), gossip (Gossip Cop), geek culture (Geekosystem), female-geek culture (the Mary Sue), sports (SportsGrid) and style (Styleite), among other things. Like so much else, it’s the result of a desire “to get into the food space,” as von Pfetten says.

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But the Braiser doesn’t exist in the food space. It exists in the food-media space, which is not the same thing. Many, if not all, of the celebrity chefs, even the ones foodies most despise, the Todd Englishes and Rocco DiSpiritos of the world, came to their platform from some kind of actual cooking. The best of them, like Colicchio, are still active chefs. As Bourdain says in his interview, that doesn’t mean that they cook; it means that they lead cooks in a professional setting. Restaurant chefs are to cooking what military officers are to human conflict; they are the people who have taken an innate, universal part of human life and made a science and a calling of it. Hence their glamour — and their authority.

The Braiser, like so much else we read these days, is a meta site; it has some good original content, but it’s primarily an aggregator, an amplifier, an echo chamber three or four times removed from actual cooking. I just got back from a food festival, which, like so many I go to, featured dozens of incredible, obscure chefs from tiny restaurants in remote regions, and the experience was visceral for me. Watching these men and women standing there, sweating, cooking their guts out while guests blithely grab little plates and move along without even asking what the dish is, inspired me far more than anything I’ve ever seen a chef do on TV. Even the celebrity chefs, like Colicchio and John Besh and Morimoto, who are still actively working every day to make their restaurants better, have something to say that can’t be found in made-for-TV productions, or prepackaged book deals.

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I get why so many chefs want to be celebrities, why they want in on “the food space.” They can get money to open more restaurants, get more diners in the restaurants that are already open and even, for the most successful ones, find a lucrative sideline in endorsement deals and the festival circuit. But the farther they gravitate away from the kitchen, the less culinary value they have. That’s one of the main reasons why Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse and a handful of others stand out from the blow-dried simulacra that have populated the media in recent years; they carry an unmistakable authority that comes from lifetimes spent in the kitchen. Colicchio still goes in and tastes all the dishes at Craft and Colicchio & Sons every day; the Curtis Stones and Tyler Florences now exist as curators of their own corner of a “food space” that exists entirely in the media-marketing complex, on sites like the Braiser and in full-page ads in glossy food magazines.

None of which makes the Braiser bad. It’s enjoyable and well done, and has that vaguely, even cynically, self-aware canniness that all meta-media sites, from Gawker to BuzzFeed, need to stay alive. But Colicchio is right. Celebrity chef is basically a contradiction in terms. A chef without a kitchen is an empty plate. Really, he can barely be said to inhabit any space at all.