The Dawn of Celebrity Chefs

(left to right) Clark Wolf, Jonathan Gold, Zoi Antonitsis, Joey Altman, and Scott Hocker

Restaurant consultant Clark Wolf remembers the pivotal moment when chefs were first transformed into celebrities in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in the 1980s, when the visage of larger-than-life Chef Jeremiah Tower, of fabled Stars restaurant, graced a billboard advertisement for Dewar’s Scotch

“That’s what started it in the Bay Area,” Wolf recalled. “Everyone thought, ‘How will Tower ever be taken seriously again?’ ” 

He was. And the fame he garnered became the touchstone for stardom that legions of chefs after him coveted mercilessly. Nowadays, chefs are the new rock stars, the new reality TV idols, the ones groupies snap photos of, and seek autographs from. What has this era of celebrity chefs really resulted in? That was the intriguing topic earlier this week at a San Francisco Professional Food Society panel discussion at the new Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Oakland. 

Wolf was the moderator of the session, “The Ups and Downs of Celebrity Chef America.” He was joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly; Scott Hocker, senior editor of San Francisco magazine; Joey Altman, former host of KRON’s “Bay Café” show and now consulting chef of Miss Pearl’s Jam House; and Zoi Antonitsis, a contestant on the past season of Bravo TV’s  “Top Chef” and now a restaurant consultant for Zazu in Santa Rosa. Food Network darling and Marin County resident Tyler Florence, arguably the most famous of the bunch, was a no-show, perhaps providing a commentary in and of itself of celebrity chefs. 

How has stardom changed your life, Wolf asked. After 598 episodes of “Bay Café,” many of them featuring one or more guest chefs, Altman says the experience afforded him a connection to the food world that was priceless. “I got an education I wouldn’t have gotten, when I got to cook alongside all these people,” he said. 

The downside of that kind of recognition? 

“When you go shopping at 9 a.m. for milk and coffee in your running shorts, and people want to talk to you, when you just want to get in and out of the store and go home,” Altman said. “You learn being a celebrity comes with responsibility. If you become anything but gracious, you become disingenuous.” 

Antonitsis concurred. She says she never was stressed out over cooking in “Top Chef,” because she’s confident in her culinary abilities. Rather, it was becoming an “actor” that left her uneasy. 

“I’m a shy person, and the biggest challenge was to do something so unnatural for me,” she said about being in front of a camera. “It’s surreal. You think, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want people to think of me?’ ” 

Hocker said one of his biggest pet peeves is that “people straight out of culinary school are calling themselves chefs now.” So where does one draw the line? For Antonitsis, it’s when you go from just absorbing information to sharing it with others. That’s when one grows from being a cook into being a chef, she said. 

The ultimate example of celebrity chef gone wrong may be Rocco DiSpirito, the panel pointed out. A once highly-touted New York chef who landed on the cover of Gourmet magazine in his heyday, he went on to star in the laughable “The Restaurant” reality show, which plunged his culinary career into a free-fall. Now, he’s getting more attention for his feet as a contestant on the upcoming  season of “Dancing with the Stars,” than for his cooking. Gold said he’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the New York food world who takes DiSpirito seriously now. 

When DiSpirito was getting accolades at Union Pacific in New York in the late 1990s, “he started dating a nightclub queen” and getting so much press, Gold said. “As he become more perceived as a chef rather than being an actual chef, his food got weaker. And the core thing he was actually good at almost vanished.” 

Wolfgang Puck became a media darling, too, with the success of Spago in Los Angeles. He went on to open a slew of restaurants, and to star in TV cooking shows. Why didn’t he self-destruct amidst his newfound fame like DiSpirito did? Gold said it’s because Puck was smart enough to always be mindful of his core product, Spago. Puck also had a strong foundation before super stardom erupted. He had been the respected chef of Ma Maison in Los Angeles before opening Spago. People forget that some celebrity chefs were well known already before they became household names, Wolf said. 

“So many people coming out of reality TV shows are literally taking their 15 minutes  and trying to leverage it without any foundation,” Altman said. “I would tell them not to rest on their laurels, to not think that someone’s going to be there to constantly fan their flame….I also don’t think culinary graduates should say they want to be the next Rachael Ray, because that’s like saying you want to win the lottery.” 

At times, the cult of celebrity has twisted our perceptions and values, often to our detriment as diners. Wolf remembers recommending Zazu as a dining destination to some acquaintances. Their response wasn’t about their admiration for the restaurant’s food or its farm-to-table philosophy. No, they were most impressed that the owners had been on the cover of Wine Spectator magazine. 

Gold agreed that fame is a peculiar thing. He gave the example of La Casita restaurant in the Los Angeles area, where the cooking of Jalisco is being reinterpreted with amazing results. “Those guys there are celebrity chefs even if you’ve never heard of them,” he said. “They’re on Univision almost every week. If they walk into a supermarket in East Los Angeles, they’re mobbed. But if you cross over into the non-Hispanic area of Los Angeles, nobody knows who they are.” 

Antonitsis cautioned that we shouldn’t let fame blind us to all the talent out there left in the shadows. “Size does matter,” she said with a laugh. “When it comes to food, smaller is better a lot of times. So many talented people are at small restaurants that we don’t acknowledge because they’re not celebrities, they’re not Wolfgang Puck. But it’s not about what blown-glass they have on the ceiling; it’s about what kind of fish they have on the plate.” 

Amen to that. 

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  • Very interesting – thanks for the report! It’s interesting to see how the idea of celebrity has evolved in the US. It used to be you got famous for doing something worthwhile or newsworthy. Now chasing fame has become a full-time profession for many – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing or if it’s good, as long you get the camera time. I’m sure you’d agree that there are many super talented and wonderful chefs out there who will never become famous – because they’re not interested and they’d rather focus their energy on cooking in the kitchen than posing for the cameras! On the other hand, you get people like the fresh-out-of-school-grads my pastry chef interviews, who, when asked what their career goals are, blithely answer, “Oh, to become a Food Network Star.” Oy vey!

  • Becoming a celebrity in and of itself is ultimately not rewarding. What you do *with* your celebrity is what matters. Would Alice Waters have been able to spearhead Slow Food Nation without the international recognition she earned over the years?

    I don’t respect Rocco because he sought out the celebrity, or let it get to his head. I respect chefs who give back, who teach, who reach out to the underprivileged in their community.

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