Media

Hail to the chef – how we are ruled by celebrity kitchens

By Richard Poplak 2 October 2011

An iMaverick correspondent muses on an earlier career as a cook, and how the Foodie has risen in a culture obsessed with eating. By RICHARD POPLAK.

I don’t need to watch Gordon Ramsay on “Hell’s Kitchen”. I lived it. When I first started cooking during my three years at university in Montreal, I worked for a martinet named Tony, a tall, balding Italian gentleman bitterly at odds with humanity and circumstance. Tony had a vocabulary that related almost exclusively to homosexual encounters—specifically my homosexual encounters—and how such activities were anathema to crafting good pizza. I was 18 years old, newly arrived from Johannesburg, and Tony had a filthy mouth even by my hometown’s high standards. On the odd occasion when I tried to remind him that I was indeed straight, Tony would double the verbal barrage, insisting that anyone who made Euro Deli’s signature thin crust pizza as badly as I did could only be indulging in late-night, meth-fuelled orgies in bars with names like Zippers.

My time at the Euro Deli coincided with the Rise of the Foodie, a Western trend that has turned food into a type of religion, and elevated the chef to the status of a god, or at least an A-list celebrity. Food is an emotional subject, inherently dramatic (will the recipe work, or will the soufflé end up a pancake?). Where once law firms provided the messy microcosm for all our specie’s foibles, it is now the kitchen—with its inviolable hierarchies, vicious politicking and long history of foul-mouthed Tonys—that has become reality television drama’s go-to locale.

Obsession with food isn’t a new phenomenon. There were master chefs long before Jamie Oliver lisped his way through a dozen television shows. The first recorded encomium to a meal can be found a mere 20-minute’s drive from Sandton, in the Cradle of Humankind. By immortalising kudu and springbok on cave walls, our ancestors were praising the value of a good braai. After all, buck are intrinsically nothing at which to marvel. They became wall painting-worthy when cooked over an open flame.

Photo: British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (L) talks with Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair in Downing Street in London, March 30, 2005. Blair promised more money for British school lunches on the day Oliver presented him with a plea signed by 271,000 people to stop feeding children junk. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

The Sumerians developed writing to list the ingredients of their dinner: sheep, grain, milk, cooking oil. Classic literature describes vast repasts; the Bible tells us of legendary feasts. The Romans developed the vomitorium; the Puritans praised the bounty of the New World and deep fried chicken in celebration of it. As long as we’ve written, we’ve written about food and the eating thereof.

But it was perhaps the American fascination with France in the late 50s that sparked Food Inc’s rise into mainstream culture. Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow and their peers haunted the Montparnasse in search of fine cuisine, and sent back their dispatches via tele-type. Bellow, after a decent Parisian meal, noted the flash of light refracting from rainwater in a sluice, and assembled the legendary opening line to “The Adventures of Augie March” in his head. “New Yorker” correspondent AJ Liebling, perhaps American literature’s greatest gourmand, ate and drank himself to death in France, but left perhaps the greatest paragraph ever written about food by way of an epitaph:

“The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book … In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”

Photo: The one who started it all: America’s most famous home cook Julia Child is collaborating with her longtime friend Jacques Pepin, a chef, teacher, cookbook author and TV personality on a 22-episode PBS series, “Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home.”

But it was Julia Child, in 1961, who introduced Americans to cuisine, via “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, her seminal work on, well, mastering French cooking. Child used more butter in one dish than most Americans had used in their lives, and she was proud of it. Like surfing and the hula-hoop, French cuisine became a craze, then a fad, then a surprisingly durable part of the American cultural landscape, bubbling under the surface of apple-pie-and-ice-cream eras like the 70s and early 80s. Trends came and never fully disappeared—sushi, Asian fusion, the George Forman Grill, and so on. The American culinary landscape was becoming remarkably catholic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Britain was undergoing something of a renaissance. If you read your Graham Greene, you know that an overcooked steak, well-aged potatoes and a glass of pungent claret (by all means, pronounce the “t”) were the best one could expect from London in the decade-and-a-half after the War. Bad teeth and bad food—that was the lot of the Englishman. But restaurants like La Gavroche, ran by Michel Roux as if it were the inner circle of Dante’s Hades, were bringing French style food to the damaged English palate. No more toast and drippings—this was classic stuff, made with flair, and by the time Michel Roux Jr had completed his culinary peregrinations and come to work at his papa’s keep, La Gavroche had sparked a London-wide revolution.

Watch: Julia Child Memories: Bon Appétit! (A preview of PBS special)

This is not to say Roux Jr was the only chef in London, but many, many young men and women passed through his kitchen, and a reasonable percentage of them lived through the experience. Gordon Ramsay, shorthand for the ill-tempered kitchen Führer, has modelled his personality at least in part on the Roux famille. During my year-and-a-half cooking in London in the late 90s, I worked in a kitchen owned by Bob Geldof, and the chef was an irascible Cockney who made Tony seem like an altar boy. His creative use of the C-word rivalled anything he concocted over a stove, and what he lacked in homosexual slurs he made up for in small penis comments. His kitchen was extraordinarily abusive, a place where grown men were reduced to tears and grown women screamed and threw things. In short, it was a literary space, full of outsized emotions and raw enmity. He had worked for Roux for a decade, and was as damaged a soul as you could ever meet.

I had always mused about collecting my experiences in a volume called something like “Kitchen Confidential”. Then “Kitchen Confidential” came out. Published in 2001, subtitled “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, New York chef Anthony Bourdain nailed it on the head. Cocaine, sex, mental breakdowns and steak pomme frittes avec framboise jus—now there’s a menu. The book blew open the upstairs/downstairs idea of a kitchen, revealing it to be as vital as the food that emerged from it. Bourdain wrote in “Kitchenese”, the language Tony wielded with such mastery. His intention was not to change the cooking business, although inadvertently, he brought it from the 16th century into the 19th —he simply wanted to flay it bare, like a well-skinned rabbit.

In many respects, “Kitchen Confidential” was a response to the rise of the celebrity chef, which Bourdain considers “a remarkable and admittedly annoying phenomenon”. The advent of cable television brought a slew of specialist channels before American and European audiences, thousands of hours of dead air that needed to be filled. Mostly, it was filled with cooking shows. The Food Network became a staple, borrowing programmes such as “Iron Chef” from Japan to astonishing (for cable) ratings. Julia Childs had proved it decades before, as had old stalwarts like Britain’s “Two Fat Ladies” and other early chef-lebrities—folks liked watching cooking on the telly. More and more chefs took to the airways to enhance their “brand”. Star chefs like LA’s Wolfgang Puck, once a restaurateur so exclusive that even the biggest actors weren’t guaranteed a meal at his table, became an upmarket McDonalds, smearing his name on any product that could be legally consumed by Americans.

Photo: Manhattan, today an open-air food court. (Reuters)

The television menu was jammed with chefs, all owning a small corner of the market. Boyish Jamie Oliver became a TV star, and then a food activist, berating Britons for their lousy diets, insisting that celery and olives were not only meant for garnishing drinks at the pub, but could also be foundational comestibles in something called a “salad”. These days, it is not impossible to eat a crap meal in London, but you shall not eat a cheap one. Gastro pubs line the streets where once a bag of crisps sufficed. Everything is infused instead of salted, basted instead of dipped, sautéed instead of fried. When a culinary subject such as the Scotch egg, which qualifies as suicide, goes posh, you know that life on earth has changed.

The Foodie phenomenon is now an established part of a middlebrow existence. Great eating is no longer the exclusive keep of the aristocracy. Manhattan, and now Brooklyn, are vast, open-air food courts. Obesity, once the ague of kings, is now both a sign of the developed world middle-classes and a marker of poverty. (Bad calories are cheaper than good calories.) We are obsessed with food because we have never had so much of it: AJ Liebling’s ode to bounty has clogged our cultural lines as surely as arterial plaque shuts down a heart.

Nice things are nicer than nasty things, as Kingsley Amis once put it. Ipso facto, good food is better than bad food. Nick Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian, met the rage of his fellow citizenry when he correctly described Johannesburg as a Foodie “wasteland”. He has a point—we still think creamed spinach is an acceptable side dish for a steak. But it is also nice to live in a city that isn’t ruled by restaurants opening and closing, and doesn’t fete its chefs as it once did its painters and writers. (Or, in Johannesburg’s case, its mining magnates.)

Balance. We need balance. But that is impossible when it comes to food. Said Christopher Hitchens, who is dying of a lifetime of excess, “Only a fool expects smoking and drinking to bring happiness, just as only a dolt expects money to do so. Like money, booze and fags are happiness, and people cannot expect to pursue happiness in moderation.” Extrapolate that to food and you get the picture. The Foodie as acolyte and the chef as high priest—this is Western culture in its current iteration. I wonder what Tony would have had to say about all this. No—hold that thought. DM



Main photo: Chef Gordon Ramsay, star of the new program “Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live”, whips egg whites as he makes Baked Alaska at the Fox Summer Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California August 6, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

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