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 V.17 No.20 | May 15 - 21, 2008 

GastroLogic

Chef Schmef

Back in March, Food Network chef Robert Irvine, from "Dinner: Impossible," was exposed for embellishing his résumé. From start to finish, his credentials turned out to be more fantasy than reality.

Seems he never graduated from University of Leeds, and he didn’t actually help make Princess Di’s wedding cake as was proudly proclaimed on his network bio. Though Dave Avery, the Royal School of Cookery chef who did make the cake, confirmed Irvine may well have been present—as a student—during the cake’s creation, he explained in a most British way, “He most certainly was not involved with me in making or baking the cake.” Ouch.

The Food Network decided to replace him and cancelled his "Chefography" episode. The Home Shopping Network pulled his products and foodies everywhere passed judgment through blogs.

I took some schadenfreude in watching Irvine crash and burn. Celebrity chefs and the Food Network in general cause me endless frustration and disgust, so a little public humiliation seemed in order. It’s about time, I thought, for them all to be taken down a notch. My only regret is that Bobby Flay hadn’t been the offending chef. Now that would have been tasty.

Shortly after Irvine’s woes were publicized, I was doing research concerning a chef whose restaurant I was reviewing. (I won’t name names because no crime was committed, and I’m classy like that.) As I read his short bio on his website, something wasn’t sitting right. Descriptions of his cooking background and credentials were gleaming but vague. No restaurants were mentioned by name, and no specific details given.

All I was able to glean from the few sentences offered was one city he had worked in or near. Beyond that, everything important was glossed over, and some high-falutin claims were made regarding his culinary prowess.

I asked him where he had worked, and he gave me a couple names. So I called them up. One restaurant was a Chinese buffet chain; the other only recalled him being a delivery driver. I thought back to, “ ... his reputation as an award-winning chef has flourished.” Really? Then why didn’t he give me the names of those restaurants?

Chefs exaggerating their experience are nothing new; I meet them all the time. Line cooks say they’re sous chefs and kitchen managers become executive chefs. Why, all of a sudden, does everyone want to be a damn chef?

Big-name chefs have been among us for well over a hundred years. Perhaps beginning with Marie-Antoine Carême and Georges Auguste Escoffier, those who tamed food and made it accessible to others have enjoyed public adoration and professional respect. Continuing through to Julia Child, well-known chefs were largely kept in check. They did their jobs—cooked—and fans loyally bought their cookbooks.

Then along came the Food Network. As the network grew in popularity and power, so did chefs, or at least their names. Americans began buying not only cookbooks, but cookware and foodstuffs—as long as the right name was clearly visible.

Expectations and demands for restaurants to be headed with this new breed of chef have also grown. No longer is being a cook, regardless of skill or experience, enough. Diners want their food prepared by hands that have slung sauces at restaurants they can only afford to read about, headed by chefs who only cook on the small screen. They want kitchens staffed with Le Cordon Bleu and CIA graduates, not cooks who can only point to natural talent and hard work as their reason for wielding a whisk.

And who can blame them? On TV, big-name chefs come across as larger-than-life. With flattering lighting and fancy camerawork, their food looks amazing, and coupled with explosive personalities, who wouldn’t want to experience that brand of dining? Besides, we’ve bought into everything else companies license—why not brand people?

As long as diners clamor for pedigreed chefs, they will be delivered. People in the restaurant industry are in the business of knowing what a hungry public wants, and if it’s chefs you want, it’s “chefs” you’ll get—even if in name only.

 
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