This is the fourth in a five-part series about the problems with contemporary food culture.
If I had a time machine, I would do the following in no particular order:
- Buy stock in Amazon
- Learn to make fresh pasta while I still had a 25-year-old’s metabolism
- Kill Hitler (obvs)
- Avoid seeing that second Matrix movie
- Go back to the night when someone first said, “Chefs are the new rock stars” and talk really loudly over them so that no one would hear and think it was a good idea to deify chefs
I first heard someone say that 10 years ago. We were having dinner at a restaurant. I don’t remember what I was eating. But I remember what I was feeling, coming out of a six-year stretch of professional cooking: chefs and cooks deserve more praise, considering how hard they work.
But I hadn’t yet given much thought to the idea of fame and the cult of celebrity. Or to what should have been obvious — that rock stars are known for making music, sometimes doing drugs or being fashion icons, possibly even using their fame to promote causes they believe in. I’d never heard a rock star lauded as a good employer.
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Over the years, I repeatedly heard the “chefs are the new rock stars” comment. I nodded in agreement at first, but I learned to feel regret for the role I played in putting chefs on a pedestal.
In 2008, when I interviewed for a job at the Toronto Star — a maternity-leave fill-in for the restaurant critic, a position I never thought I’d get — I was asked how much of a restaurant’s merit should be based on food. I said 75 per cent.
“No, wait.” I wanted to amend my answer. “Eighty per cent.”
It took me a long time to learn that restaurants are not about food, that successful restaurants use stagecraft to make you feel good about being there — design, lighting, service, music, atmosphere. Good food is essential. But it’s not the star.
“You actually believed it was food,” says restaurateur Jen Agg, laughing at me during a taping of my podcast, Taste Buds. “Service, atmosphere — all of that stuff — is more important than food. It’s the magician’s trick of having you come in and being so well taken care of, and have the lighting be so flattering — all the beautiful things that I do to make sure you’re having a wonderful time, that you don’t notice. You notice it internally, and it makes the food taste better.”
Restaurant critic Chris Nuttall-Smith agrees.
“You can go to places where the food is sublime, and you hate the place,” says the editor-in-chief of thetaster.ca.
But I was green. And I had come from restaurants, where the social inequality between front and back of house is pronounced. It took me a long time to learn how wrong I was about that 80 per cent line.
So, in my earlier days as a food writer, I certainly had a hand in helping to promote the contributions of chefs above all others.
And I think that element of food culture has been bad for everyone.
It’s helped to foster an environment in which the worst types of chefs are even more emboldened — to exploit, to manipulate, to prey upon and abuse the people in their charge.
And it’s helped to cement a circular relationship involving chefs, restaurants, media, and cooking schools.
It works like this:
Chefs work crazy hard. They create delicious food but truthfully spend the majority of their time writing staff schedules, accommodating day-off requests, approving invoices, filling in on the line for sick employees, overseeing construction or repairs, and generally doing a lot of administrative work that is not sexy and that no one wants to watch on television.
Meanwhile, for the past 20 years, TV programs have shown chefs cooking, hunting, creating, partying, travelling, competing in exotic food battles, and doing every awesome thing except for the actual drudgery that makes up most of their days.
Young people see these shows — which are as much about a chef’s life as James Bond movies are about a spy’s — and they enroll in cooking school.
- The trouble with food culture: How restaurant owners buy buzz
- The trouble with food culture: How the restaurant industry exploits millennial diners
Food television (and now social media) acts as an unintentional recruitment video for culinary programs (the dean of George Brown told me so for a story about cooking schools in 2016). No doubt, the schools do their best. But there’s a limit to how much an academic setting can prepare anyone for a field as physical as cooking.
So the rock-star chefs who have made restaurants look so glamorous end up with acolytes who are unprepared for the reality, rookies who already think they are chefs.
Ange McClusky is a chef with more than 30 years’ experience. She works as a freelancer. Her specialty is training new recruits.
“A lot of kids that I see, that have come from school, don’t know their ass from their elbow,” says McClusky. “More than 50 per cent have been willing but couldn’t pull a brunoise out of their tuchus if they had to, don’t understand the basics, get tired all the time, very quickly.”
This is not a generation-baiting thing. Young people today are as wonderful and full of promise as any other generation. But in the cooking field, they’ve been promised something phony.
Even worse than the marketing of unattainable dreams is the fact that these young people have been groomed for exploitation. Employers know that these new recruits have stars in their eyes and can be treated like groupies, that the word “passion” can be deployed to get them to work unpaid hours, to sacrifice their physical and mental health for the artistry of the chef’s vision and to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment.
I still recommend Bill Buford’s book Heat, an eye-opening exploration of what high-end restaurant work is like from an amateur’s vantage point. It’s all the more poignant now because Buford was unintentionally lionizing Mario Batali, whom we now know to be a sexual predator and a wage thief.
Being a successful chef is a triumph worth celebrating. But in telling our audiences that chefs are the new rock stars, we are inadvertently helping lead lambs to the slaughter.