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Chefs are the rock stars of the culinary world, but it
wasn't always so, writes Colman Andrews. Once behind the scenes,
now they're TV staples, but is it time they got back with the
They're everywhere: In cookware stores and food shops, on bookshelves, on magazine covers, on the internet, and of course all over television. Sometimes, rumour has it, they're even found in kitchens. I'm talking about chefs, of course.
Chefs are among our most luminous celebrities, worshipped, even mythologised. We know all about them, we want to hang out with them; we want to be them, going to their cooking classes or buying their cookbooks in the hopes that we can bring their chef-like skills and maybe a touch of their chef-like glamour into our own kitchens. What we don't often stop to think about is where chefs come from in the first place.
Let's start with a definition: chefs aren't cooks. At least they're not just cooks. A cook is simply somebody, amateur or professional, who prepares food for consumption. You might make dinners of Michelin-star-restaurant quality every night but you're not a chef unless you run a professional kitchen. A chef is a boss. That's what the term means in French, the language we borrowed it from. An orchestra conductor in France is a chef d'orchestre. The chef we're talking about here is properly termed a chef de cuisine - boss of the kitchen.
In a small restaurant, the chef de cuisine probably does a lot of hands-on cooking but in larger operations he or she will rarely be found stirring the sauces and agitating the sauté pans on a regular basis. The chef's job, on that level, is to develop recipes and menus, train staff, supervise workflow, control budgets and in general oversee the whole complex operation. That said, the best chefs have always been those who know how to cook and have a passion or at least a penchant for doing so - which is why they're able to inspire those who work for them (the cooks) to make all those delicious dishes.
Who was the first chef? Some prehistoric hunter probably had the idea of thrusting a joint of bear or tiger over a smouldering fire ignited by lightning and learned that the results were easier to chew and more digestible than raw flesh. But it wasn't until we first learnt to control fire, around two million years ago, that we really began to do something that might be called cooking. And it probably wasn't until we started domesticating plants and animals, about 10,000 years ago, thus ensuring a more or less consistent supply of food, that we began considering the finer points of flavour. At that stage, somebody probably said, "Hey, Oog roasts that joint of bear much better than Noog does", and Oog might have found himself a job.
The concept of formal division of labour, assigning different members of a society specific tasks based on their interests or skills, is thought to have been developed by the Sumerians between 5000 and 4000 BC, and since eating is a basic need, cooks would likely have been among the earliest specialists. Ancient Egyptian royalty had kitchen staffs and the Greek and Roman upper classes employed master cooks - like Soterides, who served King Nicomedes in the third century BC and who could reportedly manipulate turnips so they resembled anchovies, a trick Ferran Adrià probably wishes he'd thought of.
Men who cooked for royal or noble households, and whom we now
anachronistically call chefs, began to achieve renown in France as
early as the 14th century. But the term chef de cuisine, and thus
the use of the word chef to mean someone who ran a kitchen, dates
only from the mid-1700s. Restaurants, where customers could sit at
individual tables and order the dishes they desired - as opposed to
inns or taverns, which were communal and basically potluck - began
appearing in the 1780s.
The first celebrity chef in something approaching the modern sense was Georges Auguste Escoffier, who came into prominence at the Savoy Hotel in London in the late 19th century. In addition to establishing the hierarchy of chefs and cooks by which traditional European-style kitchens are still run, and creating an estimated 10,000 original recipes, Escoffier changed the game for chefs. When he started cooking professionally, there was nothing glamorous about the métier. Chefs were servants; they worked "below stairs", often literally, in hellishly hot, poorly ventilated basement kitchens. They had a short life expectancy and didn't make much money, and a well-born citizen would no sooner have let his daughter marry one than he would betroth her to a street sweeper or prison guard. Escoffier introduced ventilation systems into kitchens, gave his chefs a cooling barley drink to keep them hydrated, and in general improved their lot. Most importantly, he continually exhorted them to take pride in what they did. He made being a chef respectable - and became internationally famous himself, at least partially through licensing his name to a line of bottled sauces.
Escoffier was an exception. For most of the 20th century, the real celebrities were the restaurateurs, not the men who cooked for them. Every connoisseur of fine French food knew the names of proprietors Fernand Point at La Pyramide, Louis Vaudable at Maxim's, Claude Terrail at La Tour d'Argent - but not one of them would likely have been able to identify the chefs at these great institutions. Chefs first emerged into the spotlight in a significant way in (why are we not surprised?) France, in the 1960s and '70s, with the arrival of nouvelle cuisine, a new, lighter style of cooking based on fresh ingredients and regional traditions, developed by a group of young French chefs inspired in part by Point of La Pyramide. The food writers Henri Gault and Christian Millau took up the cause, praising the skills (and personalities) of the chefs themselves. Before long, gastronomes on both sides of the Atlantic knew their names - now-famous monikers like Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, and the Troisgros brothers. By the 1980s, the principles of this culinary revolution had reached America, with the UK and Australia not far behind, encouraging chefs in those places to develop "new" cuisines of their own and to come out from the kitchen into the dining room, and into the limelight.
Food and wine festivals showcasing these new luminaries began to proliferate. Restaurant guidebooks and newspaper reviews started mentioning chefs by name and comparing their abilities. Magazines - even those not exclusively concerned with food - published profiles of these culinary rock stars. And then somebody remarked that Oog's descendant was good looking in a quirky kind of way and that there might be some entertainment value there. And voilà! Food TV.
Whether this is a good thing or not depends on how you feel about turning cooking into a combat sport. Competitive cooking used to mean that each chef would try his or her best, in his or her own restaurant kitchen, to turn out the best food possible and thus win the greatest reviews or the most stars. Today it means a game show. The original Japanese Iron Chef, which débuted in 1993, was probably the first TV program to pit chefs against one another in themed challenges. It was not the last. Even the names of many of the shows suggest their pugnacious premises: in America, Chefs vs. City, Cupcake Wars, Tailgate Warriors with Guy Fieri, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, Ultimate Recipe Showdown and in Australia MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and Ready Steady Cook.
Programs like these might be about food but they're not really about cooking - unless you think that cooking means combining a bunch of weirdly matched ingredients while a stopwatch ticks or improvising massive meals around a frivolous premise under extreme conditions in 30 minutes' time.
Chefs who take part in these games might rule the airwaves but in many cases they no longer seem to care much about being a mere chef de cuisine.
+ Colman Andrews is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Saveur, a former contributor to US Gourmet and is editorial director of thedailymeal.com.
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Let’s set the record straight.