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Why do we fall for celebrity chefs?

"We’re witnessing a change in the peculiar relationship between chefs and celebrity." Tim Hayward - The Guardian

My collection of Christmas present cookbooks has made me reflect somewhat on what makes a good cookbook, which led to me thinking about the people who write them, and which comes first - the writing, the presenting, the cooking ability? And which of these qualities is the one that teaches us something, inspires us and leads us into trying something new - not necessarily a new dish. What makes a celebrity chef/cookbook writer?

As usual as I 'researched' I began to realise that others, of course, have said some of the things I meant to say much better than I could ever dream of doing, but it also made me realise that there are more things to think about here than what makes a good celebrity chef.

Here are a few celebrity chefs - British ones all because it came from a British publication. I couldn't find a similar Australian picture. I think I recognise all except the two on the right. Suffice to say they are all celebrity chefs, who have presented on TV, written books, and generally performed in public. If it was an American or Australian publication the faces would have been different but the premise is the same. Every country has its own set of celebrity chefs and they are all different. Well human beings are all different - what one person likes another won't. We all like and want different things, and if we didn't life would be even more boring than it sometimes is anyway. A good celebrity chef should make your life less boring, more adventurous, more fun, more satisfying. As well as teaching you something along the way. And we probably all want those things, but in different ways. My idea of adventurous, for example, is most certainly different from almost anyone else's.

I suppose the fundamental question to ask of celebrity chefs is actually what do we want from them anyway? On the simplest level it could just be entertainment, vicarious enjoyment, and glamour. Are they actually just a specific type of celebrity, like film stars, pop stars, sportsmen and royalty that fill the gossip headlines of the net and gossipy magazines? Are we more interested in Jamie's business failures and home life than his food, Nigella's weight or marital woes, George Calombaris' employee relationships? I'm really not into all of those things so I can't list many more but I'm sure there are many who could. Oh yes - let's not forget Pete Evans and his increasingly wild quackery. Or are we simply looking to cook something different for dinner?

My Christmas cookery books are a good place to start because they are so different from each other - even the two from Nigella are different. I have written now about all of them except two so I shall try not to repeat myself. But they do demonstrate the huge variety that exists out there in the cookbook world.

Yotam Ottolenghi is simultaneously exciting and tedious somehow. The written part of it is very serious and instructional - and yes you can learn a lot about flavour - that is the title of the book after all. How to achieve it by different methods, by different pairings and by trying different ingredients or new ways with old ingredients. But it's not easy, or even pleasurable reading somehow, although you will definitely learn something. The food however, looks divine. The food is exciting and different and actually some of it, in spite of the somewhat forbidding instructional tone of the introductions, is actually pretty simple. Though you might be hampered by not being able to source everything you need - those Aleppo pepper flakes for example. Which leads to one of the things that real celebrity chefs apparently do - by being so popular they change the nature of commerce - in that eventually we will all be able to find Aleppo pepper flakes in our local supermarket, just as we can now get quinoa in a myriad of forms. Celebrity chefs make ingredients, even whole cuisines 'hot'. Ottolenghi is an example of the kind of celebrity chef who started as just that - a chef, with a restaurant, but became a trend setter because of the books and also some television, although I think he does not do a huge amount of this, and is perhaps not quite as accomplished in this medium. Pleasant, but perhaps not inspiring. There is no doubt though that he has contributed enormously towards the trends to vegetarianism and Middle-Eastern food.

"the author must offer something unique, in a voice that allows the reader to be lost in the recipe, to enjoy the experience, not just the instruction." Alex Saggiomo

Gabriel Gaté has different origins. Well he is indeed a chef and has worked with some of the greats, but has not started trends or even his own restaurant (I think). What he has done, through the medium of television, has, initially just presented French cooking classes and then, through the SBS Tour de France segments kept a love of French food in the forefront of our thinking. His book was in some ways more about a love of France the country than its food. Its food - or rather the specific recipes - was not illustrated in the book - it was the country itself - the ambience. So if you try any of the recipes in the book - and yes I did make that cheese dip and it was delicious - it will be through a sense of nostalgia or romanticism I think. You certainly won't be dipping into this book for the writing - it is very brief and merely informational.

Bill Granger is a bit the same. The writing is not the thing, although there is more than from Gabriel Gaté, but here the food is the thing, and the food comes from his personal reputation - again from a restaurant and again from a whole new way of cooking and preparing food. The laid-back, all day breakfast kind of thing. Not to mention avocado on toast. I have yet to write more fully on this one. I do not think Bill Granger has done a lot in front of the camera - a quick check on YouTube turned up a few videos but he doesn't have a whole youTube channel like Jamie Oliver for example and I don't remember any television programs that featured him.

And then there's Nigella - I have yet to write about her most recent book. Suffice to say that the writing in both - indeed in all - of her books is wonderful. Bee Wilson has written at length about this, particularly with regard to her very first book How to Eat. To Bee Wilson Nigella exemplifies:

"a particular bond of trust between a cookbook writer and his or her reader that is not at all the same as the relationship we have with a novelist." Bee Wilson - The Guardian

Then there's the other Nigella - the queen of the TV cooking show who flirts with the camera and the audience, wears form fitting clothes, and, to my mind anyway, is mildly irritating. But it works. She is a huge phenomenon. But it's such a pity that the visual persona of Nigella herself has taken over from the quality of her writing and from the recipes. Do the TV programs sell the books or is it the other way round? Is Nigella successful because she has excellent recipes and because she is encouraging, or is she successful because she is sexy?

“The real reason these guys survive is that they connect on multiple levels with a very broad range of people. Connectivity is what we always look for in great presenters. The feeling that they are just talking to me and no one else.” Melanie Jappy - TV producer

What TV has taught us I guess is that just because you are a magnificent chef or writer, you are not necessarily going to make a good TV presenter. Ditto for being a great writer. Elizabeth David never did television, even though she began adulthood as an actress, and I suspect she would have been less than inviting. Nigel Slater, as you all now by now is a great favourite of mine, and to be fair to him he does describe himself on his website as "a writer who cooks". I haven't seen many of his TV efforts but the one I have was not that impressive. Yes I learnt stuff - it was a travel type of show and was mostly talking about za'atar, but Nigel himself was somewhat diffident. Keith Floyd was a wildly entertaining presenter, but I'm not sure his food was exceptional. It's certainly not what he is remembered for.

"some are natural writers who TV execs realised would also be natural broadcasters (Nigella Lawson, back with a new BBC series this week); some are essentially reading out their columns, ASMR style, with the backdrop of a nice garden (Nigel Slater); some are chefs so obsessed with the exotica of travel that in another era they would likely have been mid-ranking colonial governors somewhere in the British Raj (Rick Stein)." Jonathan Nunn - The Guardian

Can you sell cookbooks without being a TV personality, and if your cookbook doesn't inspire people to make your food then can they be said to be any good? Do you need to have good recipes, great writing, beautiful pictures or just good publishers and publicists - or just be a celebrity? If the Kardashians wrote a cookbook would it sell? Maybe they have.

"While an authentic and engaging voice is important, perhaps above all, the author must have and project authority, a thorough knowledge and competency. This has not changed much over the past few decades. Without authority, there is no book. Or at least no book worth reading—or using for that matter." Joshua Raff - The Literary Hub

Some, however, say that things are changing:

"the worlds of restaurant cooking and TV celebrity, which for a couple of decades were mashed into a single job, are drifting apart again." Tim Hayward - The Guardian

These days it's all on the net. Apparently we are increasingly looking for recipes and videos on the net when we want to learn to make pasta, use a mandoline, or cook a rabbit.

A lady called Scarlett Lindeman wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic about how YouTube is the place to go these days. And it's not just the celebrity chefs who are doing it - Jamie has his own YouTube channel - it's ordinary people like you and me, cooking in their home kitchens and sharing their treasured family recipes. Which they do in blogs too.

"Historian Amy Bentley, who teaches in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, remembers being excited the first time she watched a video of a grandmother making her signature dish posted on YouTube, because "such a phenomenon," she wrote in an e-mail, "seems to be the next logical step to preserving traditions in general." Scarlett Lindeman - The Atlantic

"YouTube taps into our humanistic impulse to document—to film, to have, to preserve not just recipes but the people who create them. It can give us a closer glimpse of a cook's life, more intimate knowledge of her technique, and most importantly, access to her so we can benefit from it. It's an unexplored conduit of both cooking tricks and something more—what color she paints her fingernails, how he swirls oil in a smoking-hot pan, how she keeps her kitchen." Scarlett Lindeman - The Atlantic

Some of these people do such a good job that they become celebrities too. And certainly the blogging world creates celebrity chefs. I confess to general ignorance here, but I do know of a couple of the 'health' fraternity - Hemsley and Hemsley, Deliciously Ella .... They began with blogs and now publish cookbooks. Doubtless there are many, many more. From YouTube too.

Which brings us back to cookbooks and why we have them, read them, collect them. For me it's a mix of recipes and new ideas for what to cook, information about cuisines, the sheer joy of beautifully illustrated books, beautifully written - almost the same thing I look for from a novel. Something to make the tedium of the everyday disappear and make me imagine that I can do something new and exciting too. Although that said some of those food pictures look so perfect that I wouldn't dare try. It would be so disappointing if they failed.

"A disappointing novel can simply be abandoned halfway through, no harm done, but a bad recipe can leave a horrible taste and the cook simmering with a sense of betrayal." Bee Wilson - the Guardian


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