Did you ever think that the chef would become a celebrity on par with a movie star? It seemed like such a strange idea just two decades ago. And yet, every country has its own celebrity chefs now; many of whom get recognised on the streets and asked for selfies. Some even get mobbed.
To be fair, anyone who appears on TV acquires a complement of fans. (At least, while the show is on the air; after that they are quickly forgotten.) So there have always been well known food people. In the US, Julia Child became a household name. In the UK, Delia Smith is a familiar figure in every household. So is Nigella Lawson.
But none of these people are/were chefs. It was believed that housewives would be too intimidated by recipes from professional chefs. Far better, therefore, to use as presenters people that viewers could identify with.
The chefs who started appearing on TV from the 1990s onwards when this changed (because TV channels realised that they could also attract male viewers to food shows) were not necessarily renowned for the quality of their food. Anthony Bourdain became the best known food figure in America. But hardly anyone had heard of Les Halles where he cooked. Keith Floyd ran pubs and restaurants but nobody had heard of him till he appeared on TV. Jamie Oliver was a junior chef at London’s River Cafe when he was spotted by a TV producer who made him famous.
Even when the cooking game shows started, big time chefs were rarely used. The original MasterChef was presented by Lloyd Grossman, a food writer. When the show was revived, Gregg Wallace, a greengrocer, was one of the hosts. The other, John Torode, was reasonably well-known within the chef community but hardly anyone who watched the show had heard of him.
Other MasterChef versions followed that formula. MasterChef India was launched with Akshay Kumar, who was a movie star and not a chef, Ajay Chopra and Kunal Kapoor, who were both chefs at five star hotel outlets and were largely unknown.
This had long been true of all food shows in India. When Sanjeev Kapoor was first signed up by Zee TV, he was unknown (he was Chef at the Centaur) and the original idea was to pair him with a female movie star. (The lady in question was useless on the show so Kapoor soon ran it on his own.) Though the success of that programme made Kapoor India’s most famous chef, he was still regarded by his viewers as a TV chef rather than a hotel chef or a restaurant chef.
But Sanjeev was made for TV. He was also a very good chef and a driven entrepreneur. Today, he has built up a huge empire (though restaurants are still not the most prominent part of his group) and is so trusted by his viewers that he is asked to endorse all kinds of products outside of the food space.
So what changed? When did non-TV chefs become such big celebrities?
I reckon that abroad, we have Gordon Ramsay to thank for the elevation of chefs to movie stars and in India it is Vikas Khanna who made the difference.
By the time Ramsay started doing lots of TV, he already had three Michelin stars. He was the most respected UK chef to ever front a food programme. Then, unusually for a British Chef, he made it in America with the success of the US version of MasterChef and his other shows.
These days, there are very few countries where Ramsay can walk the streets without being recognised, if not mobbed. Despite the TV success, he still remains a solid chef. His flagship restaurant has kept its three stars and he has opened several Michelin-starred restaurants since then. He is probably the only chef I know who continues to be in the top league when it comes to food but is even more successful on TV.
In India, Vikas Khanna made the difference. When he took over as the primary host of MasterChef from Akshay Kumar, he already had a Michelin star at Junoon in New York. But he was also a TV natural. The second series of Masterchef with Khanna as the chef-host was actually a bigger success than the version with a movie star host had been.
Now, the line between TV chefs and top-rated chefs has blurred. Global versions of MasterChef (though not the Australian version which has always used small-timers as presenters) are often fronted the top chefs in their countries. Heston Blumenthal, one of the world’s greatest chefs, hosts his own TV shows. Vineet Bhatia, has a parallel career as a successful TV presenter. And in India, people who came to fame as TV chefs (Kunal Kapoor and Ranveer Brar, for instance) are now widely respected for their culinary skills.
But over the last decade, something different and new has happened. It is not just the TV chefs who are famous. Even chefs at the best restaurants are also becoming famous without the assistance of the TV channels. For instance, the Culinary Culture Top 30 chefs list had Manish Mehrotra at number one. Manish is not a TV chef but his fame and that of Indian Accent, the restaurant where he cooks, has extended far beyond anything I once thought was possible.
It’s the same abroad. David Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park does not have a TV show and refused to do Chef’s Table for Netflix. But he is famous all over America. It’s the same with Wolfgang Puck, who despite his many major contributions to food (the gourmet pizza, for instance) is more celebrity than chef. Puck owes his fame to his cuisine not to a recipe TV show.
What’s made the difference? Several factors. First of all, chefs are more visible today than they ever were before. In the old days, only the Taj group, which used to be a gastronomic behemoth, allowed its chefs to interact with guests. That began to change when ITC spent crores promoting Imtiaz Qureshi and put him in its ads. Now ITC shows short films about its chefs in every one of its hotel rooms. The Oberois, who were always reticent about promoting their chefs, have gone the other direction. Oberoi chefs have finally got the recognition they deserve.
Then, there is the standalone factor Standalone restaurants often depend on chefs for their success. For instance, Prateek Sadhu had spent years working for the Taj and Leela chains. Nobody had heard of him. But once he opened Masque, a chef-driven restaurant, he became a star. Sadhu is now leaving Masque and the focus in foodie circles is on his future plans. Masque has already been written out of the foodie consciousness. So it is with Manu Chandra who is a bigger star than the restaurants he used to cook at. This would have been unprecedented even five years ago.
Another factor is the growth of social media. Even when Ranveer Brar is not on TV, he has a dedicated following on his YouTube channel. Thomas Zacharias won fame at Bombay Canteen. But even after he left Bombay Canteen, he has remained successful and famous because of Instagram and other social media.
It’s the same abroad: with 13.4 million followers on Instagram does Gordon Ramsay really need TV? (For the money , I guess. He makes millions of dollars from TV every year.) Pooja Dhingra who won the FoodSuperstar award for Best Pastry Chef has 7.1 million followers on Instagram. That is more than many movie and TV stars.
So, the age of the chef is upon us. They are stepping out of the kitchens and becoming stars. We are not at the stage where France has been for many years. (Paul Bocuse would attract crowds when he walked down the road).
But we are getting there.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 3, 2022
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