Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Celebrity Chefs

There's a creepiness and weirdness associated with the cult of the celebrity chef. In the last ten years, we went from having a small handful of national known chefs (most of those relegated to morning cooking shows on PBS anyway) to dozens of celebrated cooks. Add to that the number of regionally celebrated chefs and you have a widespread phenomenon.

I'll concern myself with the more localized phenomenon at this juncture.

You'll see it primarily in the SF Chronicle review, but it makes an appearance in most all newspaper restaurant reviews. The reviewer will use language that makes it sound like the chef him/herself is personally responsible for assembling and serving every single piece of food that comes out of the kitchen--that each creation is some sort of masterpiece on par with any novel, painting, play, or poem.

Except here's the thing, it's not.

We don't elevate every reasonably competent published writer to exalted status of celebrity author, but simply being a sous chef in a food-centric town is enough to get you some respect and a couple of handys every now and then.

So why is there so much mystique attached to what is just another craft? I think it comes down to equipment and laziness. Think of it in terms of a car mechanic. There are a lot of car repairs that any modestly handy person with a socket wrench, a manual, and several hours of free time can take care of yet we choose to turn that responsibility over to a "professional" at an exorbitant markup. We even pay high school dropouts to change our oil--a car maintenance task that doesn't even require a socket wrench. We're just that fucking lazy. Part 2 is equipment. Sometimes equipment is way too expensive to justify purchasing just to make one little repair to your car. We pay the mechanic a massive sum because he's the guy with the lift and sandblaster.

We pay high school dropouts to cook our food because we're too busy and too lazy to bother doing it ourselves and because they're the ones with the better ingredients, hotter stoves, and sharper knives. We're willing to part with currency in exchange for services.

Cooking is a craft and there's a reason so many dishes are so very similar. There are flavors that are tried and true, all that the cook does is not fuck up cooking it.

Sometimes the chef's hand is very apparent in a dish--that there's a deliberate attempt to do something new, different, or varied. And that's very cool. But 90% of items at 99% of restaurants isn't magic, it's just craft executed with varying degrees of competency.

That's not a bad thing. It's just a thing.

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