Cröonchy Stars: The "Swedish Chef" as Role Model

Curator's Note

The celebrity chef predates our modern era of television and twitter.  In an earlier time, when princesses, explorers, and intellectuals (although the last may be a romantic notion I can’t shake) numbered among those the public gossiped about, chefs were people of consequence.  This distinguished them from other craftsmen who had seen their guilds decline, but it came with a cost.  To keep the public interested, chefs embodied their stereotype: brash, self-absorbed, creative but tempestuous.

Jim Henson created the Swedish chef as a parody, but the burlesque became fact for a generation.  Like the television chefs who came before and after, the Swedish Chef had a catch phrase (Börk was the original Yum-o), a product line (from Cröonchy Stars cereal to kitchen linens), a floppy hat, and a creative streak that was ridiculous but prescient.  Slathering a moose with chocolate to make chocolate mousse is only slightly more ridiculous than stacked breakfasts or composed salads.

In an earnest country like America, the Swedish chef lost its parodic resonance and became, I would argue, a mimetic model.  How else should we explain the phoenix-like rise of the contemporary chef from Vatel’s ashes, including the hypermasculinity of food adventurers on cable television and garage-banter “interviews” in Lucky Peach.  The Muppet’s humor was lost and what we are left with is the dark side, a chef who chased squirrels with a cleaver and confronted a turtle with a blunderbuss.  Too bad.  The parody might have led us to a reimagining of the restaurant kitchen, especially as women joined the ranks of professional chefs, creating spaces that were more cooperative and egalitarian; instead, we find ourselves in an era where cooks become celebrities with tales of drugs and debauchery, fashionable boutiques sell hot sauces that might double as pepper spray, and restaurateurs—male and female—publically berate their customers.   To the degree that this ensures that the chef does not go the way of the wainwright, so be it.  But as the image of the temperamental chef has also justified gender disparity, racial hierarchy, economic exploitation, alcohol abuse, and—at times—mindless experimentation, it is too bad that so few recognized that the Swedish chef was a parody and not a role model. Börk, Börk, Börk.


Really interesting! I love your final line about not recognizing parody. I wonder if that correlates with what I see as a general lack of appreciation for nuance, which explains the market for big, brash and bold (catered to variously by David Chang, Guy Fieri or Gordon Ramsay - to each his own!). That said, wouldn't you agree that the image of chef as (substance) abusive is giving way to a "cleaner", more soft-spoken version? (Anthony Bourdain minus the cigarettes).

What a great choice of a clip! I can't believe I haven't thought about the Swedish Chef in years nor considered him in the historical lineup. His significance (and wasted potential) is so clear now! I couldn't agree more about the lack of understanding about parody and nuance. The celebrity chef meme is but one instance of this over-the-topness in so many facets of contemporary culture. Each iteration seems to lose more perspective. Signe, I do hope you're right, but I'm hard pressed to think of a new poster child for the kindler, gentler celebrity chef at the moment. Any ideas?

I'm not sure I have do have any ideas, Kathleen, beyond Bourdain himself, who seems to have morphed into a gentler, more responsible version of himself. I've been pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful and interesting his new show, Parts Unknown, is, for example. But this could also just be a coincidence, relating to growing older (growing up?), a new wife, child, etc. There is that interesting conversation between Bourdain, Alice Waters and Duff Goldman from a few years back, where he is asked why people 'give a shit about chefs' these days, and which he seems genuinely perplexed by, given that it is historically a profession which welcomes people with "unlovely" personalities and personal habits. Could it be that the market is making way for/demanding/responding to a more "lovely" (or less offensive!) personality? Chang, Bourdain, Redzepi, Oliver, Ramsay all seem pretty crazy in their own ways, but I imagine they wouldn't necessarily offend the family if you had them over for dinner...

Maybe we do have to wait for the crazy chefs to age out and take us with them, hobbling down the herb garden path. The quiet hosts are still in the kitchen, behind the counter, during the daytime TV schedule. Oh, and they're women. I have some half-baked gender thoughts based on your list of crazies and the yearning for a lovely person, so I'm just putting it out there. There are certainly rough-edged women chefs as well as non-offensive males, but.... Does anyone else want to finish the thought?

Great conversation so far. It's interesting to see how the gender dynamics of cooking in general translate to the celebrity chef realm. We rarely see male chefs hosting "at home" cooking sort of shows... No, instead they're racing around the Iron Chef arena or on the road hunting down Dinners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I heard a great interview on NPR with the author of 'Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen.' In response to the question, "And in a world of celebrity chefs and 24/7 food programming on the Food Network, how do you define a chef?" Druckman says, "It's this idea that you are the head of a professional galley kitchen. Someone like Rachel Ray doesn't work in restaurants. I mean, she doesn't have that experience of having gone through the ranks and slogged through the trenches and then become a leader in that space. You know, she prides herself on being a self-taught, almost professional home cook. And I think she deserves so much respect for the success she's had as a businesswoman and as a brander of herself and of content but to say that that is a chef, I think, does quite a disservice to those people who are in fact actually chefs." Sorry for the block quote, but I think she said it better than I could right now. Also, have to make this quick comment: I couldn't help thinking how this clip offers a prescient parody of the "new" obsession for locally sourced, fresh caught meat... What's fresher than a squirrel right off the tree!

Thanks for this engaging post, Andrew. I love the idea that, in the Swedish Chef, we see the distilled and parodied essence of today's testy and testicular chefs. I wish they were as fun as Henson's puppet. In light of Signe's, Megan's, and Kathleen's comments, I find myself wondering whether being a celebrity chef entails, perhaps even requires, creating a persona that nears and maybe topples into parody, whether it's the overwrought femininity of Nigella Lawson or the bad-boy antics of a young Anthony Bourdain. I'd be keen to see a kinder, gentler celebrity chef. (The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora comes to mind: And yet I also wonder if those of us who follow celebrity chefs might want a reductive and recognizable "Börk, Börk, Börk" resounding at their cores. I think of Signe's easy branding of David Chang, Guy Fieri, or Gordon Ramsay as "big, brash and bold" respectively. Perhaps being a celebrity chef requires being not a character, but a caricature?

I am wondering--without really knowing--how the machismo of some celebrity chefs effects the profession as a whole. I know chefs who have not only created new foods, but have imagined new ways of running a kitchen. But it is the celebrity chef, real chefs and mere personalities, who dominate our airwaves and sell cookbooks. Are these men and women the vestiges of a "big, brash, and bold" tradition that is dying out or are they role models spawning a new generation? Either way, the very public scandals that swirled around Martha Stewart and now Paula Deen suggest that there is something darker resounding at their core than "Börk, Börk, Börk." Not everyone is racing around the Iron Chef Arena, but is everyone part of the competition?

Good question, Andrew, and I think it must be yes, the machismo is affecting the whole arena. Those big/brash/bold guys get all the attention and therefore eyeballs, subscribers, etc. and so others have to follow suit (or so uncreative producers believe). A backlash must be around the corner, mustn't it? Maybe the bookends of Swedish Chef and The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora tell us everything we need to know. I am not used to posting in a conversational manner without access to a Like button, but I would be clicking it all over these comments ("testicular chefs!").

I too love being reminded of the Swedish Chef. The conversation circling around representations of the male chef as crazed or macho is just a reminder to me of one aspect of a very malleable chef persona--at least in recent decades. I have long thought that it was the plasticity of the chef persona that counted: they are at once domestic heroes and professional virtuosos. And that is why they are ideal contemporary fantasy objects. They resolve, among other things, a tension in audiences between professional and familial values. Oh, I'm opening a can of worms here.... This is not all.

This conversation makes me miss Keith Floyd. Not sure how well known (if at all?) he was in the US, but he was, to my mind, the pioneer celebrity chef. And by that I mean a chef who became famous because he was also a good performer. But his performance was of a different variety to the big/bold/brash. It was, if anything, more "real", because he was at pains to make the audience know that they were watching a constructed/artificial/recorded show: so he'd continuously talk to the camera-man, for example, or the camera lens would fog up if it went to close to the steaming pot. Or Floyd would mess something up, and just say "oh well" and have another glug of wine. There was a wonderfully committed hedonism there, which was all about the FOOD. But as ever, hedonism has a dark side, which we've all been reminded of recently with the sad and sudden, though not entirely surprising passing of James Gandolfini. Food really is wonderful, but wickedly dangerous also, and not just in the "oh I really shouldn't" way. It's perhaps not surprising that the person who gets to represent it - the celebrity chef - can be as volatile/hard to pin down...

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