ON FOOD: As celebrity chef trend reaches boiling point, kitchen know-how slips to back burner

This June might be the biggest month for celebrity chefs in modern history. For the first time, the James Beard Foundation Awards will be held in that month, instead of near Beard’s birthday in early May. On its heels will be the high-profile gathering of famous chefs and their fans, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

I thought the celebrity chef phenomenon had peaked in 2004, when America’s fascination with chefs and restaurants was translated into a reality TV series, The Restaurant, in which chef Rocco DiSpirito and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow opened a restaurant on television. The establishment, and the relationship between the two principals, publicly imploded. Many in the foodservice industry condemned the show as an inaccurate portrayal of how restaurants are run.

Imagine that, a reality TV show that doesn’t reflect reality. The next thing you’ll tell me is that people stranded on desert islands don’t actually survive through staged, convoluted contests.

At any rate, DiSpirito, once a chef whose creativity won the admiration of his peers, was unofficially banished from foodservice, the show was canceled and I thought the celebrity chef phenomenon had plateaued.

How wrong I was. Soon Gordon Ramsay [3] was yelling at cooks across the country, and chefs were showing up in people’s homes to help them cook. Even Raymond Blanc, executive chef of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, a restaurant in Oxford, England, with two Michelin stars, is getting in on the action with a show, also called “The Restaurant” in which, with each episode, he eliminates a different restaurant competing for excellence. And of course there’s the Bravo TV runaway hit, Top Chef, which has given amateur foodies yet another way to exercise their obsession.

But back to Food & Wine and the Beard Awards: This year the awards are being co-hosted by actress Kim Cattrall, best known for her role as Samantha on HBO’s Sex and the City, and celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

The Beard Foundation has a tradition of bringing in almost-A-list celebrities to host. Swoosie Kurtz, the late John Ritter and Maria Conchita Alonso hosted them in the past, but in announcing the choice of Cattrall, foundation president Susan Ungaro underscored the celebrity of many chefs.

“With the rise of celebrity-owned restaurants, the increase in food- [and] restaurant-themed movies and chefs who have established themselves as celebrities in their own right, restaurants and chefs are an ever increasing presence and significance in pop culture,” she said in a press release.

I think Flay is the first professional chef to host the awards—he’s certainly the first one in the past ten years—and by choosing him the foundation is showing its interest in promoting chefs’ celebrity nature.

The venue of the awards this year is another indicator of the foundation’s desire for glamour. For years the awards were held at the New York Marriott Marquis. Starting with last year’s awards—the first time I’ve ever found myself walking down a red carpet past paparazzi—they are now held at Lincoln Center. To keep the awards there this year, the foundation was obliged to move the awards from their traditional date.

As for Food & Wine, the first big promotional salvo fired to promote the Aspen event is the announcement of the magazine’s choice of 10 “Best New Chefs.”

Until last year, the announcement was made at a party in New York. But now the list is released the morning before the party and announced on NBC’s Today show, giving the award more exposure and fitting better into many publications’ news cycles.

The party’s still fun, so it’s still well attended. In fact, this year, the briefly shunned DiSpirito, who now makes regular appearances on Top Chef, was there and very much in demand as chefs lined up to invite him to eat at their restaurants.

Back in 2004, I also thought the celebrity chef phenomenon was a good thing for the foodservice world. Now I have mixed feelings about it. I think chefs should be able to enjoy as much fame and fortune as they want, but most media outlets don’t seem interested in the fact that chefs actually cook.

Gordon Ramsay, one of Britain’s most respected chefs, is now best known for the fact that he yells at people. Flay’s job on the Food Network [4] show Throwdown! is to lose to other cooks in culinary competitions. DiSpirito, who now makes appearances on Top Chef, is known for his good looks, not for his Taylor Bay scallops with uni, mustard oil and tomato water.

It would be a shame if, in an effort to garner fame, chefs forget what made them successful in the first place.