The alternate reality of celebrity chefs

Rarely, aside from sexual assault, overt racism, or in the case of Martha Stewart, insider trading, do celebrity chefs get comeuppance.
A headshot of Chef Jose Andres.
Photo courtesy of Geoff Livingston.

Get The Objective in your inbox every week.

This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

Almost ten years ago, D.C.-based chef Erik Bruner-Yang sat down for an interview with the (now defunct) Washington Post Magazine. The Post noted that celebrity chefs had been on the rise in the previous decade and the reporter asked Bruner-Yang, who was about to open his second restaurant in the city, if that was a good thing. 

“I read this book recently,” Bruner-Yang said “and a chapter of it was about how before the Roman Empire collapsed the last group of people that became famous were the cooks.”

It’s a telling quote from an otherwise innocuous exchange. A young chef saw in his own rise a canary in the coal mine. Nine years on, the republic stands, and celebrity chefs stand taller still. This is to say that society is perennially on edge and Guy Fieri has more followers on Twitter than the majority leader of the United States Senate. Anyone seen “The Menu” or “The Bear”? More seriously, chefs, perhaps as a result of the democratization of celebrity, are more famous than ever before. Figures like Salt Bae, for example, show that chef fandom has come a long way since Emeril Lagasse, who is himself a generation separated from Julia Child and James Beard. Bam? 

Rarely, aside from sexual assault, overt racism, or in the case of Martha Stewart, insider trading, do celebrity chefs get comeuppance. (And in the case of Martha Stewart, not always for long). Increasingly it seems that chefs find themselves hard pressed to fall from grace. Despite their celebrity, high profile chefs—often the darlings of morning television and late night shows—rarely get the same kind of news coverage as other public figures like politicians and pop stars. 

“We care about chefs a lot more,” says Northwestern Professor Emeritus of Journalism Abe Peck. No longer, Peck says, is a chef  “someone who runs a kitchen.” Rather, a chef is a brand. 

“It’s easier to identify the personality of [a chef] than the head of a construction company, or a faceless guy in a suit. People relate to food much more easily than they relate to bulldozers … I went to three restaurants in a row over the holidays, I didn’t go to one construction site.”

Of course, food is innately relatable, and it makes sense to find comfort in those who give it to us—it also doesn’t hurt that brand identity can supercharge public sentiment. Celebrity chefs have the feel-good power of food on their side, and their treatment in media and public life reflects that. 

To cite a few examples: Geoffrey Zakarian filed for bankruptcy in 2011 to avoid paying damages in a civil suit seeking remuneration for unpaid wages. Robert Irvine admitted in 2008 to embellishing his resume with a knighthood, having served multiple U.S. presidents, and helping to prepare the wedding cake for Diana, Princess of Wales. Former employees sued Anne Burrell for discrimination in 2009. José Andrés’ restaurant group donated to a political action committee seeking to prevent workers from making a living wage. Now, Zakarian co-hosts “The Kitchen” and Irvine helms “Restaurant: Impossible,” both on the Food Network, where Burrell also has two shows. Andrés was honored last fall in the National Portrait Gallery alongside the Williams sisters and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Rather than turn a blind eye, food media has greenlit high-paying second chances. 

Peck theorizes that already strapped newsrooms struggle to cover national stories let alone bad behavior in the kitchen. 

“First of all, newsrooms are decimated,” Peck says. “So if I hear a rumor that chef Joe Blow is screaming at his staff, I might even write it off as the behavior of that maestro, is he stealing from his staff? Then that’s a different kind of story. But I might not have the horsepower [to execute the story].”

Orla Coghlan, an activist at U.K. animal rights and environmental advocacy group Animal Rebellion, is part of a team that’s made a name for itself trying to draw media attention to celebrity chef culture. Animal Rebellion made headlines in November for occupying Gordon Ramsay’s three-Michelin-star London restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The group hoped to showcase the “perfect inequality” of contemporary fine dining. Note: Gordon Ramsay was vociferously anti-herbivore  — he Tweeted in 2016 that he was allergic to vegans— until this past year.

“Our main aim is to start this public conversation and we do this by interacting with people like Gordon Ramsay,” Coghlan explains. “In the U.K. at the moment, we’re in a cost of living crisis, we have two million people who are relying on food banks for a relatively small country, and these restaurants for me are a symbol of this inequality. A steak at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant is over 200 pounds. My background is in nursing and I think I can speak for a majority of the general public that that’s not something that we would ever be able to afford.”

Coghlan fears that celebrity chef culture vaunts the high life at society’s — and the planet’s — expense. She also worries that it allows people to monetize bad behavior.

“Hell’s Kitchen has created the image of the chef as being a bit of a bully and that being socially acceptable because you’re an artist, a kind of frustrated artist,” Coghlan says.

Frustrated artists believe there is no such thing as bad press, it seems. Peck points to Balthazar owner Keith McNally’s public ousting of comedian James Corden as an example of personality as publicity—McNally famously booted the English comedian for allegedly rude behavior toward staff; McNally retracted the ban in the name of second chances; Corden said he wasn’t actually rude in an interview; McNally reinstated the ban. 

As Peck says, this kind of highly visible back-and-forth isn’t exactly apropos of the corporate world. “And there’s a lot of egregious behavior in the corporate world, but it’s not the same, it’s much more one-to-one.”

Still, Peck doesn’t see outright complicity in the media’s treatment of celebrity chefs.

“There’s no agreed-upon code of silence,” Peck says. “But I think there’s a threshold in terms of how it fits into other stories. And if it presses another button, it’s gonna have a bigger chance of getting some play.”

Absent an omertà complex, the media’s tendency to fawn over celebrity chefs in situations where an athlete or District Attorney would weigh resignation creates an alternate moral plane in the public sphere. While perhaps a function of facility more so than calculated preferencing, mainstream coverage of celebrity chef culture grants tacit approval to Hell’s Kitchens and their ethically dubious accouterments. 

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy edits by Janelle Salanga.

Our stories are funded by readers like you. 

The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

The Objective is now in print! Get our issue on "the food media reckoning" now.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top