In an interview with news and opinion blog Mediaite about the celebrity chef spectacle, Anthony Bourdain said that “to a great extent, it’s a personality-driven phenomenon.” There’s plenty of truth there. The combination of an artistic, original dish made more available to a mass audience with an immediate delivery of charm, humor, and, usually, good looks makes celebrity chefs a welcome addition to a generation-spanning, food-obsessed culture.
When the likes of celebrity chefs Marco Pierre White, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, and Jamie Oliver roared onto television screens, it felt as if the food network—the channel itself and the web of passionate chefs and cooks spinning into the public’s orbit—had transformed the very core of the establishment.
“Food became entertainment, whereas before it used to be something you need to survive,” says self-made cook, restaurateur, and digital heavyweight Erwan Heussaff. “It transcended into people on television teaching you how to cook. Now you have television chefs, home cooks, and cooking competitions. Food is a relevant subject and that’s why it’s so popular.”
Naturally infectious and urgent, celebrity chefs shone bright in front of the camera, giving basic ingredients the sort of sheen that strikes like a bag of newly opened Skittles. Under their watch, food gets a delightful, elegant handling. But the prominence of celebrity chefs is ultimately doing more good than harm to the food culture. There is a strange comfort in witnessing how television is a potent driver for elevating an ordinary cook’s skills as well as deepening the ties that bind a society. Cooking shows provide the average home cook with a narrative that is more accessible.
“You want someone you can connect with and get inspiration from. That’s why there are different personalities, because you won’t like all of them,” says former MasterChef Pinoy Edition judge JP Anglo. “I hate Bobby Flay. I just don’t like his style [laughs]. I like David Chang and how he’s an asshole but he doesn’t hide it because he has the capability to be that while still being good.”
Even on Philippine television, the likes of the late Nora Daza, her son Sandy, and Gene Gonzalez have led the local charge’s encouraging move into new territory. Sandy, whose legacy started with “Cooking with the Dazas” in the late ’80s and the endearing “Del Monte Kitchenomics” of the ’90s, remains an eponymous hero of cable television show “FoodPrints with Sandy Daza,” where he rediscovers Filipino food on his travels. While “FoodPrints” has a notably different format, the motivations are the same: The thrill of embracing a role that, more than ever, gives the feeling of making a difference.
“You want someone you can connect with and get inspiration from. That’s why there are different personalities because you won’t like all of them,” says former “MasterChef Pinoy Edition” judge JP Anglo. “I hate Bobby Flay. I just don’t like his style [laughs]. I like David Chang and how he’s an asshole but he doesn’t hide it because he has the capability to be that while still being good.” Although on shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Iron Chef”—with the pressure-filled situations, fiery tirades, and berserk patterns taking center stage—home viewers could argue that the explosive profession requires a certain persona or, at the very least, an arsenal of tricks to make it in the kitchen. What doesn’t come across on the screen, however, conjures an even more disturbing precursor for aspirants.
TV trauma for celebrity chefs?
“There are a lot who say that if you’re a television chef, you’re not good,” says Jeremy Favia, who played a role in driving the popularity of television and celebrity chefs in the 2000s. “There’s a stigma that if you cook on television, other chefs will put you down because you’re doing it in front of the camera. There’s a sense of it not being real.” A fact he knows all too well, he confesses, after the belittling he received from a veteran chef.
Favia stands as a terrific example of a generation of chefs treading unfamiliar ground. A central character in the television circuit since the 2000s with then-QTV’s “Ka-Toque: Lutong Barkada” serving as the launchpad for his succession to the small screen, Favia’s approach is painstakingly self-conscious, if not overly obsessive with the rigors of television. “I’m an introvert and I don’t like attention. My cousin sent me to the audition and I was really hesitant because I didn’t know what to do in front of the camera.” As a wallflower, Favia struggled to keep viewers and his director happy—even getting shouted at a number of times for his gawkiness. The issue of physical appearance overcompensating for kitchen skills is always thrown into the picture when critics, and sometimes even senior chefs, unleash grating comments about a clean-cut, dapper chef’s deserving place.
“There are a lot who say that if you’re a television chef, you’re not good,” says Jeremy Favia, who played a role in driving the popularity of television chefs in the 2000s. “There’s a stigma that if you cook on television, other chefs will put you down because you’re doing it in front of the camera. There’s a sense of it not being real.” A fact he knows all too well, he confesses, after the belittling he received from a veteran chef.
“When Jamie Oliver first started, all the chefs in the kitchen, I remember when I was working in Australia, would laugh at him,” says Anglo. “They would always say he can’t cook in a real kitchen; he’s only good on television. But you know what, at the end of the day, who’s making more money? Who’s enjoying his job the most while we’re bitching in the kitchen? If you’re presenting yourself as a television chef, you have to earn your stripes in the kitchen. You have to earn credibility. Although, you are watching television with your eyes and ears so that also has to somehow come across.”
“It’s the general public that will decide,” says Heussaff about what qualifies someone to be on television. “You’ve had some very good-looking chefs or cooks on television that have not translated well and have tanked completely. And you have people like Rachael Ray who do extremely well because they can talk to a certain audience a certain way.”
But appearances can be deceptive, as in the case of Anglo’s stripped-down, Seabiscuit Films-produced, surf-spanning show “Hungry with Chef JP,” where he retains most of his raw energy, thanks to the total creative freedom afforded him. “No scripts, no menus. Wala talaga. It was very free-flowing. That’s why we kind of wasted a lot of time,” he says with a wry smile, sharing that he comes full circle in the second season, one that feels truer to form. “There’s a structure now. We’re going to cook for the tricycle driver. We will go to the market and see what we find and cook for the entire staff of the resort.
Most of the hate Erwan Heussaff gets is founded on the fact that he has continued to create content and concepts on his own terms, regardless if anyone else other than his family or friends likes it. “When you see someone doing what they want, it pisses off a lot of people because they realize they don’t necessarily have that flexibility or freedom. If I’m a divisive character, I’m fine with it as long as I know I’m authentic of who I am.”
Anglo’s point is valid because good looks without substance can get old quick. “When I first started Sarsa Restaurant, everyone thought that I was just this TV chef from Bacolod who surfed a lot. No one knew that I could cook. They didn’t know that I cooked the most and practiced during those surfing trips. That’s the downside of being a TV chef. People underestimate you.”
It’s a feeling that’s all too familiar for Heussaff. Out of all the personalities out there, no one generates more detractors and doubters than Heussaff, who funnily enough never claimed to be a chef in the first place and yet still falls victim to acerbic social media comments and tumultuous, toxic tongues.
Most of the hate he gets is founded on the fact that he has continued to create content and concepts on his own terms, regardless if anyone else other than his family or friends likes it. “When you see someone doing what they want, it pisses off a lot of people because they realize they don’t necessarily have that flexibility or freedom. If I’m a divisive character, I’m fine with it as long as I know I’m authentic of who I am.”
Heussaff’s fearlessness is forceful. He fends off hate with terse tones, firing new ideas instead with slightly disorienting accuracy. He comes at you with ideas at breakneck speed, and just as well because the former “fat kid inside” is slowly turning the industry on its head. A digital stalwart through and through, Heussaff produces a visually sumptuous environment for the home cook through his own online channels.
“I didn’t want to be a cook for hire that you would put on your program and I’m just the face of the operation,” he says, indicating that working with a professional production team would serve his brand better in the long run. As the content became more polished, TV networks started noticing. “Fox Network came in and said we want to give you a chance: interstitials, 10 episodes of five minutes, do whatever you want to do. And we did the same thing with TLC Asia. So this whole strategy of shooting content we like to shoot and presenting it well attracts television networks.”
Caught on the web
While the television offerings remain strong for the time being, the pressure to innovate is immense and the need to bridge the gap between the old-fashioned demographic comfortable on the couch and the digital natives tweeting and watching from their smartphones is causing a structural shift. In Favia’s case, the debilitation of traditional television came quickly after working for major channels. “It limited me and at some point, it became a dilemma. And I didn’t want to do television anymore. They wanted it to be relatable to the audience so if you use cardamom seeds or even parsley in your recipes, they wouldn’t approve it.”
Despite television’s orientation geared towards the markets they serve, it still plays a vital role. “The prestige of television is still there. It legitimizes what you are and what you do,” says Heussaff. The budgets are bigger, the production values are much higher but, he adds, understanding what’s happening online is crucial to television’s success. “You do see television now looking online. What are they doing that is so organic and raw that they can’t translate into television? So both are necessary for each other.”
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Heussaff. “There wouldn’t be this much hype about food if you didn’t have all these programs like The Naked Chef or Top Chef. When I grew up in the ’90s, food was important but it wasn’t hyped up. You wouldn’t line up three hours for food. That was crazy. Nowadays, it’s completely normal.
“You know all these web videos taken from the top angle?” asks Favia. “I’m amazed by them because you’d think who needs a television chef now with the speed of digital media?” And he brings up a question that demands attention. Where do celebrity chefs stand in the grand scheme of the restaurant industry? Especially now at a time when digital has disrupted and eroded traditional forms of media?
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Heussaff about the impact of celebrity chefs. “There wouldn’t be this much hype about food if you didn’t have all these programs like “The Naked Chef” or “Top Chef.” When I grew up in the ’90s, food was important but it wasn’t hyped up. You wouldn’t line up three hours for food. That was crazy. Nowadays, it’s completely normal. I tried getting a reservation at Sushi Saito in July for February next year and it was fully booked. This level of hype has never been there before and the only reason it’s like that is because of all the hype it got on television. There wouldn’t be this many restaurants if it weren’t for television chefs and food programs.”
Television could still be the most logical stepping stone for chefs in the Philippines, but for Anglo the status of being on camera is aligned with maintaining standards.
“Some people do it for the wrong reasons. That’s why they don’t deserve it,” Anglo says when asked if there are people who don’t deserve their spot on television. “I don’t know if this sounds right but some people do it for fame. If you’re on television and you’re trying to teach something, you should do it because you sincerely want to lend your knowledge to the viewers. When you do it for the wrong reasons, it reflects and shows, and you look like an idiot.”
Frankly, it could be a relatively small price to pay. A Forbes story in 2012 listed Gordon Ramsay as the highest-paid chef with an estimated $38 million in earnings, but most of it is believed to have come from television shows and merchandise. Which makes the brand and its entertainment value all the more important for chefs looking to cash in on celebrity culture.
While becoming another Gordon Ramsay is a highly unlikely scenario for most chefs, a television show doesn’t necessarily guarantee an influx of new customers, says Heussaff. “It brought in more interest in the worst way possible where, when people eat in my restaurant, they think everything that goes wrong is my fault. In a sense, it is, because it is my business. But it gives people that attitude since they know you on television, when they go to your restaurant they will expect certain things.”
As with anything in the entertainment industry, you simply can’t please everybody.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 13 No. 6