Just as they have since the 1930s, this year’s Michelin stars were recently announced outside Paris. Chefs all over the world were waiting, sweaty palmed, hoping that their hard work would be transcended into stars, media attention, and packed restaurants. What were once a few weeks of media focus on the high-end restaurant business has now become a year-round reality-show, with chefs as the new rock stars getting their ego´s stroked on every media platform imaginable.
This is a terrible development. Most chef´s don’t do flattery well and soon their heads become so big that the only place it will fit is up their … Well you get my point. I was yet again reminded of this watching the 2017 documentary “Michelin Stars; Tales from the Kitchen” in which three-star Michelin chef Guy Savoy says that his life dream is that the recent focus on gastronomy will make sure that nobody in the world goes hungry…implying that his cuisine is a part of ending world hunger, I imagine.
Obviously, ending world hunger is an admirable goal, but the idea that serving quail egg in caviar to the gastronomic elite is going to have any effect on the amount of porridge in African stomachs is ridiculous. The only chef in recent history who has actually made a serious attempt to better the nutrition of ordinary people has been Jamie Oliver with his school lunch projects in England and the U.S.A. And that was close to a decade ago.
The fine dining establishment laughed at him and the media quickly lost interest, as the message was more complex than “how to poach an egg in three easy steps.” The project was fast abandoned and Chef Oliver is back selling overpriced non-stick pans during the commercial break of Kitchen Nightmares.
This brand of soft commercialised journalism towards food professionals is, however, fairly new and can hopefully still be reversed. The restaurant industry was earlier portrayed much more honestly from both those in the business and the general media. I started following gastronomy from a young age. Chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders have always been my personal heroes. I remember reading Anthony Bourdain’s bestseller “Kitchen Confidential” while stuck at a deep fryer in a Danish amusement park all summer.
Chef Bourdain described the real restaurant business, warts and all. If you read his book you know what business you are getting into. No cooking segments. No YouTube channel. No articles about your world-view served as a dish. Just 12-hour shifts in the grind and a tall drink of shut up for dessert.
The shift from a real-life portrayal to some asinine sugar-coated segments becomes even more obvious watching documentaries made about Noma Chef, René Redzepi, over the last decade. In 2008, there was a public outcry in Denmark due to Chef Redzepi giving staff several well deserved reprimands in the Danish documentary “Noma; Boiling Point”.
The most recent images that we have seen of Chef Redzepi is mainly talking about food as art while throwing his hair around, L’Oreal style, with his smiling staff surrounding him. This happening in the softest Instagram filter imaginable of course.
So how can we reverse this horrible trend and get back to the interesting, innovative real life portrayals of food professionals? First and foremost, food professionals must view media attention like they would a dish in their restaurant.
Is it relevant? Will it surprise and excite the receiver? Is it truly innovative or mainly ego-stroking self gratification? There is no shame in saying “no thank you” to certain media attention.
However, there might very well be shame in jumping on the populist train and telling 30-second tales of flying ants to London and how it is changing the world.
Secondly, food writers and filmmakers need to find their inner critical journalist and actually challenge what is being said by keeping the story true and relevant. A truly competent chef has spent 12 hours a day in the kitchen since age 16. Focus on that.
They need to tell how hard teamwork and creativity might bring true gastronomic innovation and how we might all learn from this. The restaurant industry is enormous and everyday food professionals overcome amazing obstacles serving the world.
There are hundreds of great stories to be told, but only if the chefs keep it real and the media keep it relevant.