Tuesday December 29, 2009
From New York Times Op-Ed Contributor and Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain: Something important happened to my former profession in 2007. I’m still unsure what, exactly — but there was a shift, the world of food tilting on its axis.
Dining rooms were busy with ever more food-obsessed, better-informed customers. Wall Street had yet to implode, so private parties and “whale” wine buyers — customers who’d spend $150 on food and $10,000 on wine — were still in loud, proud abundance. Celebrity chefs who’d made their reputations on the haute side moved to capture the middle ground as well, expanding into branded burger joints. As with haute couture, those who couldn’t afford the full ride could now at least buy the T-shirt.
“Top Chef” was a big hit for Bravo, making reality show contestants who could actually cook into household names. On the other hand, “Hell’s Kitchen,” with its cast of mostly delusional nitwits unfit to dunk onion rings for a living, was also a ratings juggernaut. The hugely talented Gordon Ramsay tormented his stunned charges like a carnival barker in some cruel and prolonged culinary version of “Dunk Bozo,” achieving a level of success playing dumb on TV that he never could have equaled as simply a prodigiously talented Michelin-starred chef.
The brilliant, pioneering work of LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, the first time for a food writer — and this, surely, was a Very Important Moment. But 2007 was also the year that Food Network canceled “Emeril Live,” and stopped ordering episodes of “Molto Mario,” a calculated break with the idea of the celebrity chef as a seasoned professional and a move toward an entirely new definition: a personality with a sauté pan.
This was made explicit with the network’s spectacularly successful “Next Food Network Star,” in which future “celebrity chefs” were judged on the basis of winning smiles and ease in front of the camera.
Television viewers began as well to concern themselves a little more with people eating. Shows like “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern” and the comedian Zane Lamprey’s “Have Fork, Will Travel” were early indications that the future of food-related television might have as much to do with people shoving the stuff in their mouths as actually cooking it.
In film, “No Reservations” was an awful remake of Germany’s much better “Mostly Martha,” but Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” a cartoon about a culinarily gifted rat, got the details of the professional kitchen right for the first time in the history of cinema. The “epiphany” scene — a jaded food critic’s reaction to a childhood flavor — was the food moment of the year.
Blogs about food became more important. Few writers of books, magazines or newspaper columns could compete with, say, a lonely, Vietnam-based food nerd who’d spent the last 10 years eating at every food stall in Ho Chi Minh City, exhaustively documenting every mouthful.
The best news of 2007 was that chefs, as a social class somehow empowered by the strange and terrible glare of celebrity, were finally free to rid themselves of the time-honored dictum of “the customer is always right.” If experience had taught chefs anything, it was that this is very rarely the case. Chefs were now trusted enough to persuade customers to try what they themselves loved to eat. Hence the hooves and snouts and oily little fishes that increasingly popped up on menus. This trend alone made up for the bad — a momentum that will, I hope, carry us through the tough times of the present.