The gastronomic geniuses turned popular-entertainment staples have often endured rocky rides to stardom. With Gourmet Abu Dhabi attracting many top chefs to the UAE this week, James Langton examines their collective histories.
Newsmaker: The celebrity chef
There’s filming for a prime-time TV series to schedule and a meeting with the ghost writer to discuss the next cookbook (Middle Eastern with a twist is red-hot right now). The lawyer wants to run through a proposed Dubai franchise and marketing needs time to explain your cut in a new line of pointless kitchen gadgets. Your agent has a timetable of interviews to promote a Far East Tour and your wife – the second, younger one, who was your TV researcher – is insisting on first class rather than business on the flight to Hong Kong.
Such is the busy, busy life of the celebrity chef. About the only thing that he doesn’t need to worry about is cooking dinner.
To be a celebrity chef is to cast aside the cauldron and the knife. It is an end to the potato peeler and the stock pot; the long hours of toil, of blood, sweat and tears, most of it yours. It’s the celebrity bit that counts – that will make you rich, make you a star. The chef bit is almost an honorific; an afterthought.
In theory, at least. The reality is that the chef bit keeps getting in the way. Take Heston Blumenthal, a pioneer of “molecular gastronomy” and the author of the Dh600, 6.3-kilogram, 516-page Big Fat Duck Cookbook, from which no one has ever successfully prepared a dish at home.
To be fair, Blumenthal (you can buy his trademark glasses at Vision Quest in the UK, by the way) still likes to keep his hand in. And there’s possibly the problem. This week, an American couple who had just eaten at his London restaurant Dinner went down with a nasty food-poisoning bug. So Dinner is off the menu this week, just like his original The Fat Duck restaurant, which served up the norovirus to 240 customers five years ago and closed for 10 days.
But it’s no easier outside the kitchen. Take Jamie Oliver, whose cheeky-chappy persona should not obscure some good work on improving the diet of schoolchildren. Oliver, whose minimalist, everyman recipes earned him the moniker “The Naked Chef”, has just had his business extremities left somewhat exposed by the closure of three of his four Union Jacks restaurants in Britain, because of the “current challenging climate” (economic rather that meteorological). At least his Jamie’s Italian branches in Dubai seem to be holding up.
So the superstar chefs of Gourmet Abu Dhabi, in full flow this weekend, might be forgiven for feeling a slight chill, despite escaping to the desert sunshine. The festival prefers the phrase “international masterchefs”, which seems more sensible for an eclectic group that ranges from India’s Sanjeev Kapoor to Henrik Yde-Andersen from Copenhagen, via the UAE’s very own Khulood Atiq.
The point about the Gourmet Abu Dhabi gang, is that these are guys (and one woman) who when they feel the heat, get into the kitchen. The most instantly recognisable name among them is Gary Rhodes, who has been on the telly since the 1990s and is now sadly better known for his appearances on the B-list reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing than he is for the bread and butter pudding recipe that’s rightly credited with reviving traditional British cooking.
Which brings us to the obvious question: why celebrity chefs, as opposed, say, to celebrity firemen or celebrity florists? There’s no obvious explanation for this, except they seem to spring up when people have nothing better to do and a bit of spare cash to do it with. Back in the first century AD, the Roman senator Petronius observed in his Satyricon a particularly decadent feast given by a rich merchant that represented for him the terminal decline of civilisation. One of the dishes was a pastry “egg” enclosing a cooked songbird embryo. Two thousand years later, Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes include “meat fruit”, including a bull’s testicle cooked to resemble a fresh plum.
In the 19th century, there was Marie-Antoine Carême, who did his bit to replace honest tavern fare with fancy French cuisine, and Auguste Escoffier, who packed them in at the Savoy in London during the Belle Époque. But then came the First World War and the Great Depression, the Second World War and the nuclear threat and nobody felt much like doing anything other than staying alive and staying fed.
Then something changed in the 1950s, and that something was the arrival of television, followed soon after by Julia Child and Fanny Cradock.
Child and Cradock opened new horizons for home cooks on both sides of the Atlantic, introducing exotica like garlic and olive oil. Cradock was first on TV, launching a cooking programme for the BBC in 1955 with her bumbling husband Johnnie as sous chef and taster. Child, a more serious figure, started with books and didn’t hit TV until the 1970s. Both, though, were celebrities, with Child even played by Meryl Streep in a 2009 biopic.
As mere cooks, Child and Cradock were a stage on the evolution of the celebrity chef. Today, Nigella Lawson ticks a lot of the right boxes – bestselling books, regular TV, looks, appears in the tabloids a lot – but she, too, is a celebrity cook rather than a chef, even if the distinction is often hard to make.
So the first proper celebrity chef was Marco Pierre White, who in the 1980s ran a superb restaurant called Harveys in Wandsworth, a slightly unfashionable part of south London.
The chattering classes went in droves to taste his oysters and tagliatelle over a bed of rock salt, but that wasn’t what made White a celebrity. It was the backstory that the media loved. There was his fiery temperament, that once saw him slit open the uniform of a underling who complained that he was too hot. He allegedly ejected dissatisfied patrons on to the street, including the food critic of The Times. There was the heartbreak of his Italian mother, who died when he was six, and the astonishing fact that while he was the youngest chef to win three Michelin Stars, he had never even been to France.
Above all, there was the wild, Heathcliff good looks that made him a natural in front of the camera. His first TV show was Hell’s Kitchen, setting the tone for The Chopping Block and Kitchen Wars.
By 1999, White had retired from the kitchen and chucked back his three stars, claiming that they had turned him into “a prisoner” (and a millionaire). Today, he is involved in numerous restaurants, including a steakhouse at Abu Dhabi’s Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and Wheeler’s of St James’s at Dubai International Financial Centre. But while his name is above the door, don’t look for White in the kitchen. That’s not what the celebrity chef does.
White also spawned an entire generation of celebrity chefs. From the kitchen of Harveys came Gordon Ramsay, determined to outshout and outswear his mentor. And indeed, Ramsay’s career has eclipsed them all. Starting as a head chef at Aubergine in Chelsea, he now runs a culinary empire that stretches from Los Angeles to Cape Town. By the best calculations, he currently has a finger in the pie of at least 30 restaurants – although not literally, thankfully. His pastry-making days are over.
Ramsay’s concerns are no longer whether the sauce has split or the supplier has forgotten the morel mushrooms. The question of whether he cooks anymore, though, is a sensitive one. He once lost his temper with a BBC interviewer, saying: “I want a life outside my kitchen, sorry.”
Instead he has a life entirely conducted in the public eye. His problems with the taxman, his turbulent relationship with his father-in-law, even his hair transplant; all are grist for the mill. The cappuccino of white beans with grated white truffles is a distant memory.
To be a celebrity chef, then, is to be like any other celebrity. Essentially something other than what you really are. In this case, someone who once cooked exceptionally well for the pleasure of others.
More recently, there are signs that we may be nearing the end of the golden age of the celebrity chef. These are no longer decadent times. Fashionable dishes in London and New York now are the burger and maccaroni cheese. Worldwide, the ratings for food programmes are shrinking. The exception is The Great British Bake Off, in which ordinary folk labour under the watchful eye of Mary Berry, who at the age of 78 really does bake cakes like grandmother used to make.
It’s true that the show also features Paul Hollywood, a real-life baker and Harrods supplier, who is something of heartthrob to his female fans. For a while, it looked as if he might genuinely “go Hollywood”, running off to Los Angeles for an American TV deal that also saw him abandon his wife for a toothsome co-presenter in the grand tradition of celebrity chef bad behaviour.
But Hollywood saw the error of his ways, and is now back home and forgiven by both his wife and his legion of Bake Off fans. There’s a lesson here for other celebrity chefs, even if it’s only to start using your loaf.
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