Chefs Are the New Rock Stars

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down the street and you pass a punk-looking kid wearing a black t-shirt with Anthony Bourdain’s face on the front. Or you’re in the mall and the gaggle of girls outside of Old Navy are all wearing sparkly pink shirts emblazoned with the Rachael Ray logo. Or maybe you’re watching the news to see thousands of women mobbing the airport when Jamie Oliver deplanes and races to a limo to be whisked away before someone gets injured.

To people in the industry, the concept of chefs as celebrities seems vaguely uncomfortable. The people who cook the food for restaurants, events, and hotels are meant to be behind the scenes. They’re part of the great machine that makes a dinner or an event happen seamlessly and beautifully; the kitchen is called “back of house” for a reason. Most dedicated cooks don’t want the attention – they want to do their jobs and do it well, and don’t much care for the cameras and interviews and face time.

But most is not all, and as more and more of the celebrity chefs we watch on TV sign endorsement deals or create product lines of their own, the desire – we’ll even call it a “need” to be seen, to be out there promoting the gadgets, the cookbook, the product lines and oh, yeah, the restaurant – becomes overwhelming.

In the latest issue of Fashion Magazine, Jacob Richler talks about PR and publicity agencies who represent chefs. While agencies in the US and the UK are doing a booming business, the concept is still new to Canadian chefs. Richler reports that The Artist Group’s Toronto division is set to work with local chefs:

The Artist Group’s new lifestyle division and its associated website,, will handle chefs in the same way that the agency has represented its roster of top hair and makeup artists, stylists and fashion consultants for the past 14 years. The agency will represent and promote chefs in their markets – and potential markets – and finesse everything from job placements and image-enhancing media appearances to signature brand extensions such as cookbooks and condiments. And, since these are chefs, the agency will lend them a little polish in the form of media training, as required, while also providing help with their financial planning.

I see both pros and cons to this plan. Sure, restaurants are businesses, and naturally the publicity from having a celebrity chef behind the stove is a great way to bring in customers. But on the other hand, many chefs are not exactly known for their great social skills. If there’s even a touch of ego involved, the hospitality industry can easily be transformed into the hostility industry.

Sure, that’s what agencies like The Artist Group plan to fix; soften the rough edges, make a surly chef a little more friendly and accessible, but there’s also the risk of over-exposure and dilution. One can’t help but be more than a little disappointed in Jamie Oliver for putting his name on that useless flavour-shaker gizmo. And a man who really cared about what the children of Britain were eating would find something better than non-stick pans to cook it in.

While it’s marginally amusing for a while, there’s a wee bit of shame in having someone make a plastic toy in your image and celebrity chefs who don’t control their own publicity run the risk not just of over-exposure, but of becoming a Krusty the Clown type joke.

One of the first things you learn is cooking school is the acronym K-I-S-S. “Keep it simple, stupid”; meant to warn aspiring chefs away from using too many ingredients, or putting too many garnishes on a plate. Less is more. Let’s just hope that Toronto’s chefs remember that when the PR agencies come a-knockin’ with a bottle of salad dressing featuring their face on the label.