Are Celebrity Chefs Good for Food?

Last night, the good team Zocolo brought together Nancy Silverton of Mozza, Ludovic Lefebvre of Ludobites, Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Street and Ilan Hall of the Gorbals to discuss if celebrity chefs were good for food. The discussion was moderated by restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.

After the hour plus discussion, the question of celebrity chefs being good for food didn’t quite make it to the table. The chefs talked about what it was like to be a celebrity chef- or not. Nancy strongly objected to being called a celebrity chef. It seemed a definition of a celeb chef is now based on if your mug is on TV. I was a bit perturbed. Having gone to all the chefs’ restaurants, having read Nancy’s cookbooks, having read other books where Nancy Silverton is frequently mentioned– it just didn’t compute. Nancy, you’re a star and you obviously know it.

Susan Feniger seemed the most comfortable of the idea since being a celeb chef has helped her restaurants’ business. People are now flocking in starting at 6 p.m. (breakfast as she called it) rather than just peak times. She mentioned how strange it was complete strangers would give her bear hugs because they thought they knew her. I know exactly what she was talking about. I may be guilty of a bit of that. I watched the Two Hot Tamales growing up. Although if I ever questioned my child self, I would have never thought I was going to eat at Susan and Mary Sue’s restaurants one day. I remember the first time I ever saw the two of them. I was really excited. Hell, I still get excited which led to an embarrassing incident this summer with Susan and the Mayor.

I have gone to Ilan’s restaurant plenty of times though it’s usually a bit of hit or miss for me. I have faith though. I like supporting not just good food, but the idea that this is something greater than you could put in words. No wait, I know what those words are- we are in this community of foodies, foodists, food heads. We are bound by the common love of good food.

So are celebrity chefs good for food?

I’ve been thinking about how Ludo has changed the way Angelenos get excited for food. He is the king of the popup, the hot rage in LA these days. With Ludobites, he was bringing affordable fine dining to the masses. Well, at least beyond as he says- “the rich people and the food critics.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that first Ludobites meal. I might eventually blog it even though it’s now a year and half since I met Ludo and have had quite a few meals since.

Perhaps the celebrity thing isn’t easily answered. Being on TV might make or break you. Gordon Ramsay seems insane but people still go to his restaurants. People don’t seem too keen on Red O anymore but those are just the people I know. Maybe the non-foodies will still go. Hell, any foodie should still go. I believe in debunking hype. I love to see if the hype is deserved or not. I also grew up watching Emeril, Mario Batali and occasionally Wolfgang Puck. Have I eaten at their restaurants? Yes. Did I seek them out because they were celebrities? No. I went because I thought they’d have good food. After all, weren’t they good enough to be on TV?

That part of the equation seems to have been lost on the current crop of budding chefs looking to be famous. All the chefs on the panel last night come from serious backgrounds. They can cook circles around just the bubbly, “let’s put basil on this because it’s pretty” starlet. Er, foodlet?

Ilan brought up the fact most of America might want someone who cooks familiar foods. They’re not looking to re-create a professional chef’s food. I watch shows to learn how things are made. I tend to like shows about things I would never cook myself– professional chefs’ food. I might look for a printed recipe of simple, easy dishes because I just can’t imagine watching a cooking show on meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs (although fried chicken is different because it falls into the category of I’m not going to cook that).

But now shows are about entertainment. Reality television is really profitable. You don’t need scripts or even actors. You can create a whole show based on anything these days. Why not a cooking show? Why not turn that chef into a television darling– or misfit?

I was talking about why Americans are so obsessed with celebrities a long time ago with a friend. We reasoned it was the grass is always greener on the other side syndrome. People can imagine celebs having the time of their lives and we are envious. But why are we obsessed with celebrity chefs? They work long hours. Running a restaurant is majorly stressful. But they make it look glamorous. They make it look easy. Even those competition shows. And we like people with talent.

Are celebrity chefs good for food?

Finally, I like to say yes. Although I can’t imagine anyone not knowing where their food comes from, I imagine there are quite a few people out there. People now know about all sorts of food stuff they probably would never eat- bone marrow, octopus, etc. I am glad the celeb chefs are introducing offal and bone marrow to the masses.

Actually, I wonder if trendy foodies are good for food. They are the ones who are slaves to celeb chef gossip. The rest of us just want to eat.