While having dinner recently, I overheard a woman trying to familiarize her dining companion with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In an attempt to jog her memory, the friend asked, "What show is he on?"
It's an interesting state of affairs, more obviously a sign of the times. In a perfect world, we would associate famous chefs with their cookbooks, their restaurants, and their culinary creations. Thanks to Bravo and the Food Network, their accomplishments in the kitchen now stand parallel to their hairstyles and catchphrases. From an educational standpoint, food television is sort of like adult Sesame Street. Ingredients and preparations that are utilized on Iron Chef, formerly commonplace only to those who had experience within the food and restaurant industry, have become a conventional part of domestic vocabulary.
But this is America, after all, and these shows wouldn't be what they are without the drama and ego that often overshadow the art form. You've got to wonder if The French Chef would even survive today in the midst of 30-minute meals and the Voltaggio brothers. When devising his own Person of the Decade award, Joel Stein of Time magazine decided that Thomas Keller would be the runner-up. "In a decade when food became both entertainment and politics, when obscure ingredients filled grocery-store aisles, when I had to go outside in zero-degree weather to suck in air in order to keep from barfing after gorging on 22 courses at his restaurant Per Se, but then ate four more courses, Keller led the way by focusing on being the best instead of hosting a Food Network show," wrote Stein.
Few of the legends have skirted the pressure to become regular faces on our Tivo lineup -- Keller, Alice Waters, and Guy Savoy, for example. Kudos to Stein for recognizing the ass-backwardness of the reality food show phenomenon. Ego and fame aside, a great chef is one who derives satisfaction from creating innovative cuisine and utmost pleasure in directly serving their people. The ability to become famous by doing this, and to continue cooking in your restaurants far beyond the days when your success depends on your presence in the kitchen, is perhaps a more notable and respectable feat than earning your marks by becoming a familiar face.