Celebrity chefs: Do we need them?

Curator's Note

The final question put to Jamie Oliver in this clip - ‘What makes you uniquely qualified to advise us here?’ - is a simple but important one. It remains unanswered in the show, and in my opinion asked far too infrequently in general.  

Some, like Jamie Oliver, believe that because of their unique positions, food media personalities have a duty to involve themselves in how and what people eat because so much of the world is apparently both anxious and clueless when it comes to food. One journalist went so far as to claim that British celebrity chef Delia Smith did not have the choice not to get involved in the politics of food.

The image I've chosen to accompany my contribution is a Time cover from 1971 declaring that "Eating May Not Be Good For You". This is the kind of hyperbolic (and frankly absurd) claim that contributes to a climate of fear and anxiety when it comes to food, and the kind that can also validate our supposed need for someone to guide us through safe vs unsafe/"good" vs "bad" food. But while I don’t believe or mean to suggest that celebrity chefs operate with any ill intent, or that intervening in people’s nutritional habits is uniformly “bad” – particularly if their health and well-being is in jeopardy – I do think that intervention becomes interference when it gets in the way of our critical faculties, including how much we trust our ability to think for ourselves. It’s not the fault of chefs that they have become famous for simply knowing how to cook or for having confidence around food. But if we cannot simply let them entertain us, or at best let them educate us into helping ourselves, without resorting to the kind of cultish hero worship that undermines our own capabilities and obscures the limits of their expertise, then it may just be that celebrity chefs, and the lifestyle channels they inhabit, are not very good for us either.

My own answer to the question I've posed in my title is that we do not “need” celebrity chefs. But we should certainly enjoy them for what they are. Which means something like enjoying David Beckham if you like football, or Gordon Ramsay if you like swearing (though I hear he makes decent food too!).  


I apologize if my response is off the mark, because I could not click on the clip. So I'm assuming that Oliver is doing what often happens in celeb-chef self-representations: mystifying his relationship to the viewer by falsely identifying with us and us with him while prescribing a certain way to be or cook that doesn't translate. This false equivalence would result in the unhealthy cultism you refer to. If I've got this wrong, I apologize. But I'm responding on this point anyway because I've got a related bone to pick. Just as mystifying as chefsin the mode you allude to are the celeb food writers who tell us that if we aren't cooking all the time we are living sensorily and ethically impoverished lives. It is very convenient for them to model such a lifestyle because they are food writers and so they take care of career and domestic life simultaneously when they cook. The problem with their preaching is two-fold: first, it's arbitrary (imagine telling them they should do their own work on their car instead of bringing it to the mechanic so as not to lose their connection to the source of their transportation); second, and relatedly, if we followed their advice it would ruin the IMHO desirable restaurant business. Of course, cooking is an enlightening and gratifying experience (when not hurried). But we live in a modern, complex, specialized society. They are in primitivist denial. A bit of a screed, I know, but your attention to the role modeling of celeb chefs unleashed a bottled-up beast!

Alison: I'm sorry you weren't able to watch the clip (seems to work OK for me?). It's a little different to what you imagine, in that it isn't a "standard" cooking program, with Jamie showing us how to make something. Rather it's from his American Food Revolution, in which he takes it on himself to "fix" the childhood obesity crisis. In this clip we see him asking a roomful of professional nutritionists to help to get him access to schools in LA, which he has been banned from filming in. So my intrigue here is really about shifting boundaries of expertise and authority, and why Jamie Oliver would think that he had any of those things when it comes to childhood obesity (and I think it is precisely the cultish hero worship that has played a role in allowing people like Jamie to forget the limits of his authority). But on the related point, I absolutely agree. There is a distinct sanctimoniousness (not to mention impracticality) in Michael Pollan's model of the world, where if we all just cooked everything from scratch in our own kitchens, the world would be a better place.

Like Allison, I don't want to cook day after day and I do not know how to change my car's oil (and also can't access the video). But lacking a private shopper to go to the grocery store, I can't escape an intimate relationship to food. Consuming food, as Signe suggests, involves balancing pleasure and health, time and cost, and I want help with this task At their best, celebrity chefs offer some insight into how to make healthy food interesting, but they are such an inefficient and unreliable source of good information. I have to watch ten minutes of advertisements to get twenty minutes of advice on a topic I don't choose, from someone whose celebrity obscures their credentials and inflates their influence. How much better to seek out a good government pamphlet or website on nutrition, where there is generally a good faith effort to get the facts right. Or, if the goal is delicious, to turn to the crowd-sourced world of YouTube. I can type "Italian grandmother cook" into the search engine and suddenly find myself with one hundred Italian grandmothers willing to teach me how to make meatballs. Or, if what you want is innovation, the library and bookshops are full of recipes by working chefs whose fame is grounded in their ability to win the support of eaters rather than viewers. Perhaps the days of the celebrity chef are numbered.

Given how the industry has mushroomed, I'd hesitate to predict numbered days for celebrity chefs. But who knows, you could be right. One thing is for sure, though, and has come out variously in all three posts so far, is that being a celebrity chef is about much more (or less!) than innovating with food. Andrew, it's interesting that you mention government pamphlets as an example of reliable/credible source of information on nutrition. Another trend I'm noticing is the growth of maverick movements who would disagree with exactly that. What the Paleo/lo-carb crowd and those following Gwyneth Paltrow's de-tox plans have in common is a fundamental distrust or outright rejection of "standard" nutritional advice. Often there's some conspiracy theory thrown in there also, eg. the current dietary guidelines are just a reflection of corporate/Big Food influences on governments. That's a whole different can of worms, but I think all of these things contribute to a climate of uncertainty about how/what to eat, including the apparent option of making up your own rules. And for those who want guidance, celebrity chefs are just one option among too many others.

Great choice, Signe (fortunately, I was able to see it!), because it raises a host of issues. Reading all your comments thus far, I come away with the feeling that this is largely about morality. Those in the Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan camp are shouting the message that we cannot take care of ourselves, need intervention, and that (proper) food is the cure. It does feel like they are fighting against a tide of sin and bad behavior in an effort to fix *everything*, as Signe suggests. They want to be seen as superheroes. Maybe food seemed like the medium with which to become a superhero because it's such a robust topic of interest crossing so many heretofore uncrossed demographic lines, and they can get a big audience. But they are only stirring up the can of worms, of course, and digging the dividing lines even deeper.

Thank you for this post, Signe, and the great questions you raise. Your point about the validity of Oliver's authority as a celebrity reformer is important, especially in light of what you rightly describe as "a climate of uncertainty about how/what to eat." As I'm sure you know, Pollan locates the source of America's uncertainty in the fact that there's no reliable authority: the country doesn't have a stable tradition of eating and has, in turn, relied on nutritionists, who he argues haven't done all that well advising us. He sites the recent seismic shift in the officially recommended diet—that eaters should go from carb heavy to low carb. ("Wait, what? All that pasta wasn't good for me?") His response is a sort of nostalgia revolution: return to eating what our grandparents would have recognized as food. And in that vein, the paleo/caveman diet looks like a more extreme version of the same logic: return to eating what our pre-agrarian ancestors would have recognized as food. In such a climate, I'm not surprised that people are making up their own "food rules." And along comes Oliver, who in better moments seems a voice of common sense, as when he argues that maybe we shouldn't add refined sugar to the milk that we serve children in schools, and at other moments seems a self-interested celebrity. If he's so worried about the kids, why couldn't he unhitch himself from his cameras and ask to visit the schools without filming permits? Giving up the spotlight to further his revolution in a grass-roots way would certainly be a sign of Oliver's moral commitment, perhaps even his moral—if not scientific—authority, but it would also be celebrity suicide.

Indeed, Eric, without the cameras Jamie Oliver would *just* be a philanthropist. This reminds me of a line from the great essayist Joesph Epstein, who wrote (I paraphrase) that it is no longer good enough to be known; now we have to be known to be good. Along those lines, it is somehow invalid to be good and not to be known. A sad indictment of our present culture of equating recording with value. Re. Pollan, another irony, that while not a "celebrity chef", he is certainly someone who has fashioned for himself a position of authority and celebrity (of a sort): along with many others, he decries the voices that "we" have been deferring to for too long, but sets himself up as an alternative to just that. Some of his "rules" are perfectly sensible (avoid heavy chemicals in your food), but others are patently absurd (avoiding what our grandmothers would recognize as food rules out a whole world of deliciousness, as does anything that avoids more than five ingredients). I can't help but find it depressing that anyone would need a book of rules about food.

A quick voice of defense for Jamie Oliver: Were it not for the celebrity that he brings to school lunch programs, we might well not be talking about school lunch programs at all. When I was in graduate school, I interned at a public elementary school in Tucson, helping kids plant and maintain their school garden. I'd hoped, when I started the school year, that we might get some of the produce we were growing in the garden into the kid's bellies, by way of the cafeteria. No go. Health codes exist for a reason, it is true, but the particular health codes that govern Arizona public schools give preference to sanitized, packaged food over fresh produce grown twenty feet from where it'd be eaten. As a 10-hour a week volunteer, I didn't have the resources or time to try to confront the quagmire of regulations that made this so. Neither did the teachers I worked with. So yeah, I'd have been thrilled to see the media machine of Jamie come rolling along. Sometimes, it takes a celebrity --- with his camera --- to shine a spotlight on a complicated and overlooked problem for it to be tackled at all. (Much easier to keep serving slimy peaches in a cup.) I'd argue that Jamie Oliver has made talking about school lunches cool again, precisely by being the likeable, not-so-qualified celebrity that he is. Just to finish the story, Tucson Unified School District just got a grant from the federal government to sort out regulations to serve garden produce in cafeterias. It'll take a school year's worth of work, so, right, that's when celebrities like Jamie Oliver fall short.... The follow-through is what counts.

No question that Jamie has done some social good. When I was watching his "Food Revolution" about Huntington, I was shouting at the TV every week - "you CAN afford to do this! It's common sense!" etc. I agree with his philosophy completely. But others here make a great point about his seeming unwillingness to follow through without being in the media spotlight. The message is already out there, now he can actually continue to burnish his good name by working on the cause more discreetly and inspire others to do so. A related anecdote. When I was at Heathrow in 2008, the customs woman asked me what my business in the country was. I said I was presenting a paper on cooking shows at a food and media conference. Her face lit up with recognition, but her response: "Jamie Oliver's absolutely ruined the schools here!" So I guess "social good" can be quite subjective.

Thank you, Signe, for setting me straight on the clip I couldn't click on. What you say makes sense. I would just add another thought to everyone's stimulating mix of ideas: In my experience, Oliver's expansion in domain and implied expertise is an instance of something typical for anyone who reaches a level of empowerment in a profession. You gain the privileged condition of expanding your reach and authority without having to prove yourself like every other poor schnook. There may be a pedestrian parallel in the also common phenomenon of people looking to hire people they know (and trust) for jobs before bothering with an unknown's resume. Perhaps these phenomena just suggest that what really matters to people is less expertise than familiarity (assuming one has a positive impression of a person's humanity). Sorry for anything convoluted here. I'm tapping this out on a cell phone.

Thanks to all of your responses. Agreed, Alison, that familiarity is probably as important a currency as expertise (which explains the Gwyneth Paltrow-as-foodie phenomenon). And Megan, I agree with both yours and Kathleen's sentiments. There is no doubt that Jamie has done a lot of good for a lot of people (though some, as Kathleen points out, would beg to differ). I don't doubt for a second that he really has good intentions either. What's of interest in the school food conversation is that Jamie Oliver is by no means the first, or the only, person to care, or to try to do something to make them better. What's telling, though, is that for so many people this was a non-issue until Jamie made it one. That's the power of celebrity I guess. To riff on the phrase Kathleen used, if it isn't on television, it doesn't exist. (And to link this to the clip, that's what Jamie is acutely aware of in this series. No school rejected his help, or disallowed him from entering their kitchen. They only banned his cameras).

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