Among their many enticements, celebrity chefs promise viewers access to their craft and, in some cases, their lives. In fact, this promise contributes to the rise of today's celebrity chef, with figures such as Fanny Cradock and Julia Child revealing to viewers how they, too, can cook like French chefs. (A model French chefs such as Jacques Pépin would soon follow.) A chef like Gordon Ramsay takes this promise even further. Through his spate of cooking shows, he reveals not only how a true chef cooks, but also how one lives, whether he’s making scrambled eggs at home or taking out his kids and dog for a constitutional before he serves the big Christmas meal. Combine this degree of self-exposure with the sort of media attention given to celebrity chefs, and it would seem there’s not much we don’t know about them, as the recent case of Paula Dean attests. Mystery and mystique don’t play much of a role in the making of modern celebrity chefs.
And yet all those bright lights that shine on celebrity chefs do, I think, cast a shadow, if only on the mysteries involved in their own making. Just what happened with that tire swing? When the set designers were hanging the rope for this scene of Ramsay family fun, did they screw up or did they intentionally construct it so it would break? And what did Gordon think when the “reality” of swinging his son in the park, quite literally, snapped? Did he eventually unleash his signature rage on his production crew, as he does on his contestant cooks in Hell’s Kitchen, or did he think, “Great shot!” The family’s hysterical laughter is suggestive. Is it from their surprise, their relief that the kid is okay, their delight in being freed from—or caught in—the goofy charade they’ve been performing? In moments such as these, the very process of making a reality television show or making oneself a celebrity creates mystery, maybe even mystique. We’re not in the know.
Instead, we sense all we don’t or can’t know, even when a show and its star try to minimize the gap between their televised “reality” and the reality behind it by including content that spoils the original script and could easily have been cut. In such moments, we’re left startled, captivated, dumbfounded by what and who we’re really watching.