Professional kitchens get gentrified while foodies pretend to be ordinary folk

Celebrity chef shows how to prepare chicken wings for sailors at naval stationA story by Lisa Abend in Time this week, “Kitchen Gods,” chronicles the rise of the celebrity chef and the role of “the global hum of diligent foodies at their keyboards” in creating rock star chefs.

Ok, so the chef as rock star isn’t anything new. I mean, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can probably rattle off a few names yourself. But two things worth noting in Abend’s article.

We’re all part of the upper crust now!

…our alienation from food and its preparation is matched only by our obsession with it. Huge parts of the population now seek out artisanal cheeses at their local farmers’ markets, and run-of-the-mill restaurants attempt to cater to their newly refined tastes, serving salads made of fancy lettuce. Lots of ordinary folk now aspire to have their own $1,100 Thermomix food processor and blog about every course of every restaurant meal they eat.

“Ordinary folk” aspiring to buy $1,100 food processors? I wish Abend had expanded more on this point, because to me, that’s far more interesting than the rise of the rock star chef. As books like the 2006 bestseller, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, brought to our attention, our collective tastebuds have shifted upwards; and this applies to Canada as much as to the States. But the bar for “normal” has also shifted upwards, whether it’s the food we eat or the tools we use to cook it.

And of course, food blogging, of the here’s what I ate and cooked today variety. One of the reasons food blogs have become so popular is that sense of being in a real person’s kitchen—it’s more like getting friendly recipe advice from a neighbour, except we don’t talk to our neighbours these days, so off we all rush to our keyboards. And supposedly, all this is in opposition to those celebrity chefs and their high-end eatin’.

That, at least, is the illusion of food blogging. Ordinary people in their ordinary kitchens. Umm, no. Actually, we’re not all part of the upper crust. And don’t believe it when you see high end aspiration masquerading as the new norm, as just a “normal cook” in their own kitchen.

As neighbourhoods get gentrified, so too do kitchens

Celebrity has had salutary effects on the profession of cooking as well. “Thirty years ago, most people who worked in restaurant kitchens had either just gotten out of the Army or were on their way to jail,” says [Mario] Batali. “Now you get all these people who went to college, then found their passion in cooking. The level is suddenly much higher because the people cooking are a lot smarter.”

You know when neighbourhoods start to gentrify and everyone talks about the poorer residents getting pushed out and marginalized, and where are they all going to go, and so on? Well, I’d like to know what the people who once worked in our kitchens are doing instead? Propping up the celebrity chefs behind-the-scenes? Are they just working in shittier and shittier kitchens? Are they working at McDonald’s, elbowing out the pimply teenagers? I suppose we haven’t outsourced cooking to India and China yet… Leaving aside all the food that does come to us by way of China, since restaurants meals still have to be made right here at home, we’ve instead made it a field for smart, college-educated people.

Personally, I’m not convinced that cooking needs to be college-ified. Among other things, we wouldn’t have Anthony Bourdain pulling us all kicking and screaming back down to ground level, where common sense reigns. Reviewing Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw, Josh Ozersky, also in Time, quotes Bourdain: “‘What the f___ am I doing here?’ he asks himself at an elite banquet. ‘I am the peer of no man nor woman at this table. None of them at any time in my career would have hired me, even the guy sitting next to me [Eric Ripert]. And he’s my best friend in the world.'”

I love that we now have artisan cheese widely available, that farmers’ markets are popping up everywhere (at least in Toronto), and that more and more people are genuinely interested in eating better. But what are we losing in the process, and can we do it better? We like to conjure up countries like France, with their long, rich food culture, when we think about our own rising food culture. But I would venture to guess that eating well crosses across more socioeconomic classes in European countries than it does in North America. Obviously, not everyone is eating in Michelin-starred restaurants, but the most basic, decent quality foodstuffs are available to more people across the board.

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2 Comments

  1. Annie on June 16, 2010 at 11:05 am

    I feel like our food culture is more stemmed from the enjoyment and interest in fame, elitism and egoism because we don’t have a healthy tradition with food, historically…(We invent things like Spam and Pancakes and sausage on a stick! We like things fast and instant!)

    Have you seen this article on Hipsters on Food Stamps (http://www.salon.com/life/pinched/2010/03/15/hipsters_food_stamps_pinched) ?



  2. Lea Zeltserman on June 17, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Annie, all very true – definitely some of the most shameful culinary contributions out there. Although since I’m up in Canada, technically, I take no responsibility for any of the above 🙂

    I did see the hipsters and food stamps article. I thought it was fascinating – there’s such elitism and entitlement in their food choices, yet, that’s also what people are fighting for in terms of improving the quality of our food. Isn’t eating mac ‘n’ cheese because that’s all you can afford precisely the problem? Maybe if it had been an article about an impoverished family trying to eat healthy on food stamps…

    There was a rebuttal from the guy featured in the Salon piece (not surprisingly, they were ripped apart in the comments).