Chef or Sell-out?!

I love a good Twitter debate, particularly one that is thought-provoking and well-informed. Chef or sell-out? This is a question I’ve been asking myself recently after a Twitter debate about Jamie Oliver and the hordes of products that he endorses. Once relegated to society’s potluck of misfits and miscreants, more and more chefs are becoming “celebrities” – writing cookbooks, starring in TV food shows, traveling the world to speak at conferences, and flogging all manners of kitchen-related products. So, I have to wonder, when is it all too much? When do chefs lose sight of it being “all about the food” and get lost in their own narcissism and their custom-designed-and-branded-picnic-esky?

To find out I decided to talk to a couple chefs to get their perspectives.

What is a Chef?

Wikipedia defines the word chef as, "derived (and shortened) from the term chef de cuisine, the director or head of a kitchen (The French word comes from Latin 'caput' and is a doublet with English 'chief'.) In English, the title 'chef' in the culinary profession originated in the haute cuisine of the 19th century, that introduced many French words into the English language. In non-English European languages, a 'chef' is the head chef; others are 'cooks.'"

So, what exactly is a "celebrity chef" then? Can you be a celebrity in your own kitchen? And I'm still amused when people visit a world renown restaurant and are shocked (SHOCKED!) that the famous "head chef" isn't there cooking each and every meal. New flash people: they probably aren't there most days, if at all.  

I needed to know, what is it really like to be a proper chef? 

For this post I was lucky enough to interview Chef Dean Sprague, a chef of over 30 years. He told me, "We as chefs need to be effective communicators, leaders, artists and without any bullshit...labourers.  Labourers because you are often lifting, carrying, standing, sweating, hot, moving on many different levels.

It is tricky to make a living out of your kitchen, you need to be able to adapt your product and move it out the door in anyway that's possible.  This can include bottling/freeze drying/dehydrating (etc) your recipes with catchy labelling and brand awareness...even if "you" are the brand.  Building a following certainly helps, but it can be fickle as the next trend is just emerging as we speak.  You need to be an effective manager, with one eye on your costs and processes.  Staff, margins and ingredients are just the beginning of the list of expenses that need to be factored into the final sale price."

The Reality

And while most chefs would dream of fame and fortune, the reality is that a significant  percentage of them slave away every day, including weekends and public holidays, serving meals in obscurity.

Chef Dean added, "Being a chef is a lifestyle choice.  It isn't something you can 'do' without it having an impact on other areas of your life.  Let's face it, when everyone else is out socialising your chef is at his peak busy period.

Most family gatherings are held on the weekend (birthdays/weddings/engagements/reunions/funerals).  Another peak time for people in the industry.  You tend to miss out on a social life, this isn't something everyone can adapt to and it takes real dedication to continue to show up time and time again."

He continued, "You know, most chefs 'do' and don't really think about the social implications of our lifestyle.  We all have a deep love for what we do, nothing else can make you turn up the next day.  There is certainly more money and easier job roles out there than cooking for a living!"

The Conundrum

So, who am I to judge when a chef hits it big and has his/her face all over food creation? There was an interesting quote from Marco Pierre-White back when Curtis Stone got his gig in the US on Top Chef and his face landed on some other shows and products. White said Stone, a brand ambassador for Coles and host of TV series Top Chef Masters, should not be criticised for "making a living and securing his family's future. Look at how many lives he's touched, look at how many people he's inspired to come into the industry, how many mothers he's inspired to go shopping for better produce to feed their family. It enriches their lives, so how can you criticise a man for doing it? You can't."

When I asked Chef Dean he said, "It's fantastic when someone breaks through into the mainstream, and their name is recognised.  It doesn't happen all that often."

“Jumping the Shark”

Haven’t heard of the phrase “jumping the shark”? Ever watch Happy Days back in the 70s? In the fifth season they had Fonzie jump a shark on water-skis in Hollywood – it actually was a very popular episode but it’s been forever christened as the moment when a TV show, idea, or person reaches their peak of popularity, begins to decline, and then tries something audacious/ridiculous/just-plain-stupid to drag out their unavoidable slide into obscurity.

Now, I’m going to use the term loosely here but to me, when a chef starts spruiking things that have nothing to do with their food, cuisine, interests, or skills – they've “jumped the shark”. I mean, I’ve seen it all – televised eating challenges, branded coolboxes and plastic goblets, to amusement park themed travel shows. I mean seriously, do I really want to buy a BBQ lighter just because Jamie Oliver endorses it? Does he really think that lighter will make a difference to my cooking? Or how about a Paula Dean keychain that says “Hey, Y’all”? Not interested? Neither am I…

But Chef Dean says, "I'm all for a chef, or any other industry professional making a name for themselves.  The time is right for consumers to have heightened awareness of the products the are using; food especially. 

I'm all for the celebrities that are out there, they do raise the awareness of the industry and can inspire youth to have a go.  The downside is that it isn't all television appearances and book deals.  There is often years of hard work in front of someone to become a known name, many will continue to plug away at jobs with little reward or acknowledgement." So, is the line between chef and sell-out whether the spruiker is furthering the cause of good food, quality ingredients, and better cooking?

In the End

One thing is crystal clear: I'm no chef and I can't even begin to appreciate the hard work, stress, and meagre wages most have to endure. And I'd find it hard to pass up if someone were to drop by Gourmet Male and offer me millions to slap the brand on anything from steak knives to car tyres. But that's the point - should chefs be famous for what they cook, what they cook with, what they eat, and what they stand for? Or should they be famous just because they speak well, look good, or employ the best marketers in the business? 

In his final comments Chef Dean summed up his experiences, "It's not all doom and gloom though, I love my profession and would do it all again. I've formed bonds with people from all walks
of life, and count dozens of individuals as my brothers and sisters. Fundamentally I'm a kid from the suburbs who has made a great career out of cooking, I've travelled the world and worked in places they wouldn't let me in the front door of."

So chefs, just tell me what you're passionate about in the kitchen. Tell me about the food experiences you love and help make me a better cook. I'll never be able to match your skill or creativity but I'll tell you this - my long matches work just fine to light my BBQ, thank you very much, Mr Jamie Oliver.

Tell me what you think. Know any chefs are more sell-out than not? Or, as a self-avowed capitalist, do I even have a right to question?