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Friday, August 19, 2005 | Our world is consumed by celebrity, with food being right up there. Every magazine is full of the who’s who of food. Las Vegas is now having its second food reawakening, attracting the latest round of celebs including Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York City. Food cities are being ranked by how many celebrity chefs they have. Most are so busy being celebrities, they don’t even know what their restaurant kitchens look like any more.
I just finished reading “The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine” by Rudolph Chelminski. It is the life of three-star Michelin chef Bernard Loiseau. I was fascinated with the story of this very talented chef, but by the time I finished, I was terribly sad because his quest for celebrity and fame caused his suicide. He was afraid he was going to lose his third Michelin star. Because I am involved with chefs all the time, I began to worry about my part in this whole celebrity genre. When restaurants hire publicists, they are looking for exposure which they hope will make their businesses more successful. The exposure for the restaurant usually comes from the chef.
Over the years, I have had many restaurateurs tell me to make their chef a star. Why not? If you read newspaper food pages and food magazines both on the Internet and in print, the content is all about the personalities. We used to have TV food shows that actually taught people how to cook. Have a look at the food channel now. Many of the personalities are not cooks; they are entertainers. The major networks have broadcast shows such as “The Restaurant” where we watched the very talented Rocco DiSpirito crash and burn trying harder to be a celebrity than to make sure his customers were getting great food. “Hell’s Kitchen” portrayed Gordon Ramsey, one of England’s and the world’s finest chefs, as the devil incarnate. With the incredible media attention to personality, we are forcing chefs to be more than cooks. They now have to have agents, publicists, personal trainers to keep their bodies in shape, designers for their kitchen uniforms, secretaries to keep track of personal appearances and ghost writers for their books.
Of course, I want my clients to be famous, but I want to be sure that they become famous for the right reason – their incredible food. I don’t want to be part of watching their personal lives disintegrate. I want them to have a life that is well-balanced and enjoyable. I try to remind them about why they chose the business they are in. They love to cook. They love seeing the enjoyment on customer’s faces after a fine meal.
Alfonso Iaccarino is the chef/owner of Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, a tiny little town at the base of the Amalfi Coast. I have had the pleasure of eating there several times. It is a marvelous dining experience and I was thrilled in 1997, when the restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star. This is a special feat as there are few Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy. The requirements of maintaining that third Michelin star, however, was not what Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino had in mind. Their goal was to highlight the Italian flavors of Campania, utilizing the fresh ingredients grown in their adjacent farm. With that in mind, they gave up the third star to stay true to their roots and their goals. Celebrity was not worth compromising their dreams. Their decision has allowed them their dreams, their life and their craft without the intrusion of being celebrity performers.
I hope everyone involved in the celebrity part of the food business will take a serious look at what we are doing to the chefs we employ, work with or represent. We all need to step back and remember why they were hired in the first place – to create delicious food for the dining public to enjoy. All of us will benefit from allowing them to do just that.