The 1990s and the noughties were dominated by the TV celebrity chef. Even people who hated cooking watched them. But bloggers and food websites have stolen their moment, says Ed Power
NIGELLA’S American TV show is rumoured to be facing the chop, Jamie’s latest restaurant opening, in Istanbul, is seeking bankruptcy protection and Gordon is locked in a legal battle with a Tenerife restaurant that has a name suspiciously similar to his own.
It has been a winter of discontent for our kitchen overlords — perhaps the era of the celebrity chef is in decline.
Nobody is saying Gordon Ramsay will be shortly flipping burgers, or that Jamie Oliver will be delivering pizzas door-to-door (though you can imagine him pitching the concept to Channel 4). The elite of the celebrity food world are eye-poppingly wealthy and exceedingly influential.
But, as a cultural force, their moment may be over. Through the 2000s, Oliver and Lawson didn’t merely materialise in our living rooms sharing quirky recipes, they were role models for the chattering classes, with their picture-perfect lifestyles, cherubic kids and stunning kitchens. You didn’t want to cook like Nigella — you aspired to live like her. Perhaps no longer.
“The problem with Ramsay, Lawson and Oliver — especially the two latter ones — is that they have become too branded, ie boring,” says Paula Hotti, formerly a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Scotland, now a food blogger in Ireland (http://sateenmuruja.com). “The only way to survive as a celebrity chef is to keep on cooking, and to do it honestly, “she says. “Too many just seem to turn out to be sell-outs. Seriously, what kind of a self-respecting chef uses Knorr?”
Hotti is referring to Marco Pierre White, formerly the prowling bete noir of the London restaurant scene, now a pitchman for a popular brand of stock-cube.
The problem, she says, is that chefs have become celebrities first, chefs second — their popularity is conditional on their ability to keep us entertained, rather than on their flair with a wok or chopping block.
“Celebrity chefs are the same kind of celebrity as any other famous people in popular culture, and to be an interesting celebrity in any kind of era you have to have an interesting personality,” she says.
If there was only a handful of famous kitchen conquistadors, perhaps none of this would be an issue. However, we’ve been deluged by handy-with-a-whisk types seeking to parlay their know-how into a media career.
In stores, shelves groan under the weight of ‘celebrity’ cooking books — they are like a variation on the Nigella formula of good-looking dishes combined with nice frocks and a yummy lifestyle. We have reached ‘peak celebrity chef’.
Furthermore, the internet has enabled foodies to explore recipes without having to spend all evening watching Gordon wrestle a steak or Jamie chopping a salad as he guffaws with the camera crew. On the internet, everyone can become an expert and the raison d’être of the celebrity chef starts to feel less compelling.
“The internet has changed the landscape for celebrity chefs,” says food writer, Emma Whoriskey. “But those who have embraced social media, I think, have as much influence as ever.
“Look at Jamie Oliver, he’s — or his brand machine is — a prolific social-media user. Whereas Nigella Lawson, whilst she does use Twitter and some other social media, isn’t as prolific and I feel has lost some of her influence.”
There’s a new kind of kitchen ‘celebrity’, whose profile is owed to social media rather than television.
“Any food writer with a following wields as much influence as ‘celebrities’,” says Whoriskey. “For example, the food writers Felicity Cloake and Gizzi Erskine have, in my opinion, just as much influence. Rachel Khoo is a mixture of both and a good example of someone who uses social media to gain an audience, but can also be considered a bit of a celebrity.”
What does the future hold for celebrity chefs?
Those who became famous through the 1990s may be in gentle decline in the decade ahead. Certainly, ten years from now it is difficult to picture the ‘big three’ of Ramsay, Nigella and Jamie wielding anything like their present influence.
Indeed, you imagine them joining the ghosts of celebrity chefdom past, such as Delia Smith, living on in perpetual repeats on one of those TV channels you never watch. In their place, we are likely to see a fragmentation of the genre, with a renewed emphasis on recipes rather than lifestyle.
Even today, there is something faintly quaint about luxuriating over Nigella Lawson’s lovely knits and gleaming stoves, even as she feasts over a creamy cake. We no longer take our lifestyle cues from television — with Twitter, Facebook and so forth, why would we?
This, more than anything else, may be the paradigm shift that hastens the cult of the celebrity chef into obsolescence.
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