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.