Guy & Alison & David & Samin & Chrissy: How the internet redefined the celebrity chef
From left to right: Chrissy Teigen, Guy Fieri, Samin Nosrat, Alison Roman, David Chang Image: Mashable Composite: FEATUREFLASH PHOTO AGENCY / WILLY SANJUAN / INVISION / AP / SHUTTERSTOCK / ERIK PENDZICH / SHUTTERSTOCK / COURTESY...
Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we're checking our feeds.
In the '90s and early aughts, a celebrity chef was someone who turned their kitchen chops (be that knife skills or simply being charming behind the counter) into Food Network shows, packed restaurants, bestselling cookbooks, merchandise, or a deal with a sought-after brand. Now, they're someone who turns their bestselling cookbook into a Netflix show, or their YouTube show into a Hulu show, or their popular YouTube show into spinoff YouTube shows, or their blog into cookbooks, or their Instagram popularity into a TV Show, or their Twitter goldmine into a Martha Stewart-esque empire.
That's because social media, memes, better smartphone cameras, and streaming have changed the formula for success — and Food Network faltered when all that began to take shape.
"The thing where people used to say chefs are rock stars, it really continues to be true," says Allen Salkin, author of spicy tell-all From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.
But just like you never had to be the best musician to top the music charts, you never had to be the best chef to be a celebrity chef. It’s always been more about personality than how well one can cook. Or, how well one can interview other chefs or travel the world eating exotic foods with other famous people.
That was true in the ‘60s when Julia Child demystified French cooking. That was true when Emeril first yelled “Bam” in the ‘90s. That was true when Guy Fieri started bringing camera crews to greasy spoons in the aughts. And it’s still true now when Alison Roman answers questions about The Stew, her face masked by Instagram’s puppy-ears filter. Or when David Chang travels to Morocco with Chrissy Teigen for a Netflix show and wonders, “How the hell did she go from SI swimsuit model to the modern-day Martha Stewart almost? It’s like crazy.” (Teigen was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2019, honored as a pioneer in the food space by celebrity chef Eric Ripert.)
"Even the word chef is complicated — some people define it as anyone who has a culinary degree, others say you have to run a restaurant kitchen, others say you need both," says Emma Laperruque, food editor at Food52, an influential food site. Still, there have been home cooks who've made the transition to "celebrity chef."
"These days, it can go in the opposite direction: a celebrity who turns into a culinary influencer," she adds.
Julia Child wasn't the only chef on public television, but she certainly is the most well-known. In 1967, four years after The French Chef taught Americans how to make crepes and cook a goose, Joyce Chen used the same set to teach upscale Chinese cooking. But Joyce Chen Cooks fizzled out after one season because it couldn't get a sponsor. Chen, the first woman of color on a national cooking program, had to work with a vocal coach to soften her strong accent. Looking back on her show's short life, media scholars and food historians note she didn't have the same "charisma" as Child, and xenophobia may have played a role. (Child and Chen were friendly, and Child often ate at Chen's Cambridge restaurant.)
For decades, PBS would be a main source of televised cooking for Americans. But the business of PBS was very different than later iterations of televised chefs. PBS offered cooking programs as a public service. The Food Network, which launched in 1993, was made to make money, and celebrity sells.
The Food Network debuted just months before Martha Stewart turned her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, into a syndicated TV show. More Americans were spending money on home decorating and improvement. The American economy was booming and people had extra cash. Stewart may be more of a lifestyle guru, but she's also been called a celebrity chef over the years. She's had a renaissance recently due in part to her collaboration with Snoop Dogg on a VH1 cooking show, a friendship made for the internet.
In the beginning, there wasn’t even a working oven on the Food Network's set. One time, someone behind the scenes mistakenly ; rather than hurting the network, the flurry of complaints proved to advertisers that people were watching. Entire seasons were shot in a week. Emeril Lagasse, whose photo could have been next to the dictionary definition of “celebrity chef” in 2000, came up with his “Bam” catchphrase to wake up a tired crew.
As the Food Network grew, there was controversy in the kitchen. Food Network hosts were TV chefs. Not real chefs. The same lines in the sand would be drawn decades later as cooks began to show off their chops online. Those are YouTube chefs. Those are Instagram chefs. Not real chefs. And yet, an Instagram chef or a YouTube chef has the power to be more famous than someone who owns a successful restaurant.
“There’s disagreements with people about who is a celebrity chef and who's a food influencer. It's so blah blah blah blah blah."
“There’s disagreements with people about who is a celebrity chef and who's a food influencer. It's so blah blah blah blah blah,” says Guy Fieri, a Food Network prodigy. “Whatever. I don’t even think about shit like that.”
“If you're doing something good in the industry, something good for people, you know — who's educating people, entertaining people, helping people, all inside of food... those are my criteria,” Fieri says of who should be considered a celebrity chef.
Salkin considers Fieri the Food Network's last home-grown star. The next big twist to come from the network, he says, was Ree Drummond, a home cook who built her own fandom through her blog, The Pioneer Woman. In 2011, she went from influencer to Food Network star with even more influence.
"Having created a nation of people who knew what kale and shallots are, [the Food Network] made a business calculation that they can run dumb crap over time and they’d get a couple more thousand viewers," Salkin says. At the same time, Bravo and other cable networks were also running food shows, particularly competitions. Then in 2015 came higher-brow content like Chef's Table from Netflix along with "the broad, the Instagram and YouTube chefs," he says.
In 2006, a year before Emeril Live was cut due to declining ratings, Fieri won The Next Food Network Star. The show, which later dropped “the next” from its title, ran until 2018. By then, YouTube was already being called Fieri was still the show's most famous winner. He’d become popular not for his own cooking but for spotlighting diners, drive-ins, and dives in his show of the same name. And for leaning in hard when the internet (He has a team that comes up with the memes, which he then runs by his sons.)
Other celebrity chefs have tried to transition to the internet with varying degrees of success. Ina Garten is popular on Instagram, her "store bought is fine" catchphrase fitting in well with home cooks looking for recipe ideas. (Same goes for her willingness to make a humongous quarantine cocktail.) Tom Colicchio of Top Chef has also upped his Instagram game during the coronavirus pandemic. With his New York restaurants closed, he's been showing off his sourdough bakes. Garten has 2.6 million Instagram followers to Colicchio's 246,000.
In between them sits Alison Roman at 560,000 Instagram followers. Roman's recipes have become proper nouns (The Cookies, The Stew, The Pasta) and she's been dubbed "the face of home cooking" and "the prom queen of quarantine." She's even referenced "store bought is fine" in an Instagram caption before.
The Nothing Fancy author is casual and unfiltered. She fits the millennial ideal of cramming a bunch of people into a small apartment, everyone drinking out of a hodgepodge of glasses and eating anchovies, but anchovies in effortlessly cool and delicious dishes. She dons filters to answer cooking questions in her Instagram Stories. It's endearing, although she says it's more out of embarrassment than trying to be cute.
"I'm not wearing makeup or like I just went for a run or like didn't get dressed or take a shower, and I'm like 'I look like shit' but if I put a filter on, I look OK," she says. "It's like an obvious way of saying I do care what I look like. Not enough to style myself for a video on Instagram, but like enough to put dog ears on me that smooths out my rosacea."
But her say-whatever, keeping it real vibe got her in trouble. She sent shockwaves through the Twittersphere when she Teigen a sellout. Teigen responded with a sad tweet noting she'd been making Roman's recipes for years.
Celebrity chefs criticizing one another, either for being "sellouts" or bad cooks, is a time-honored tradition. But the masses didn't demand an apology when Lagasse dunked on Rachael Ray. Or when Stewart did the same. Or when Anthony Bourdain roasted Fieri. None of those barbs had a negative impact, overall, on anyone's fame. What makes Roman's gaffe different? We have apology culture and cancel culture, sure, but we also have a heightened awareness of privilege, how successful women should treat other women, and internet power. Roman, a white woman, criticized a woman of color over how she leveraged her fame. She was disparaging another woman to differentiate herself. In this dynamic, though, Teigen has the real power. She sits at the cool table in our social media cafeteria. Roman sold a TV show recently (production has been on hold because of coronavirus) and Teigen planned to executive produce. Like Martha Stewart, Teigen is a lifestyle guru who in some circles is considered a celebrity chef. She uses her cooking to propel her fame, after all.
"It was stupid, careless and insensitive. I need to learn, and respect, the difference between being unfiltered and honest vs. being uneducated and flippant," Roman posted on both Twitter and Instagram, tying it back to her own insecurity.
Before the brouhaha, when asked what made someone a celebrity chef in 2020, the New York Times columnist and restaurant-trained chef said it depends.
“If you’re asking the cool kids on Twitter about who they think is important and cool, it’s different than like my mom,” said Roman. For what it’s worth, she said she makes recipes for both the cool kids and moms.
"I'd rather be known like overall for good work than like for one recipe that's very successful," Roman said. "That's more important to me than like, 'Oh did you make The Cookies by that girl.'"
"It's not like my main goal to make hit after hit after hit. That feels exhausting. And I will fail if that was my objective."
When she's writing a new recipe for her column, she's thinking about how she can make something delicious that anyone can make.
"It's funny because plenty of people, especially at the New York Times, people love to comment like, 'Oh well I do it this way,' and like 'I do it that way.' And I'm like, yeah, I know you can do it a lot of ways, but I'm trying to write one recipe that is as inclusive as possible," Roman said.
Accessibility has been part of celebrity chefdom since Rachael Ray taught a busy nation how to make 30-minute meals nearly 20 years ago. The difference now is we're not spending 30 minutes watching how to make something. We're scrolling through Instagram at lightning speed. Or we're double-screening it, scrolling on our phones while we watch Netflix or YouTube.
Some celebrity chefs of the aughts have tried to harness the power of YouTube. Both Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have YouTube channels, although Ramsay with 14 million subscribers has more than Oliver's 5 million. Last year, Ramsay was nominated for a YouTube Streamy Award for Food, but didn't win. Instead, the honor went to Andrew Rea, the home cook behind Binging with Babish, a YouTube show with nearly 7 million subscribers that recreates food from TV and movies. Binging got its big break in November 2016 when Rea made the "moistmaker" sandwich from Friends. Since then, he's made the Krabby Patty Supreme from SpongeBob SquarePants and Direwolf bread from Game of Thrones with star Maisie Williams. He's spun his success into another cooking channel called Basics with Babish, where he teaches viewers how to make hummus and sourdough, and a lifestyle show called Being with Babish, where he plays Oprah and gives gifts to deserving fans.
"Anyone with a camera and an internet connection can make content now. I'm not saying that all of that is good," Rea notes. "But there's so much of it out there, and there is so much of it that is genuinely good and really [well] produced, really well thought out, really affable, and really enjoyable shows on YouTube that nobody's watching because they either didn't market themselves correctly or they didn't get as lucky as I did," Rea says.
"I try not to ever fall into the trap of thinking that I'm special for having made this," adds Rea, who wouldn't call himself a celebrity chef. Those are "your Gordon Ramsays, your Alton Browns," he says. Although, not calling yourself a celebrity is a requirement for internet celebrities. Like Roman, he has to be approachable, aspirational.
"There's so many levels of what could be considered a celebrity chef," Rea adds. "When does the line start? When you have 100,000 subscribers, when you have 250,000 subscribers? Like when do you become a celebrity chef?"
Claire Saffitz, the Bon Appétit chef whose memeability comes close to rivaling Fieri, also never wants to be called a celebrity chef. Saffitz hosts the magazine's YouTube show Gourmet Makes where she recreates junk food from scratch. People relate to her frustration, which is on full display when she tries to make gourmet Doritos or Peeps.
Her videos consistently net between 5 million and 10 million views.
"Absolutely not. I cringe. I think if I ever get to the point where I expect recognition, I'm a sociopath," she told Mashable last year at Vidcon when asked if she considered herself a celebrity.
Rea, who didn't go to culinary school, was recently featured in a Bon Appétit challenge. A professional chef walks him through making a Jean-Georges egg — fluffy scrambled eggs stuffed in an egg shell and topped with whipped cream and caviar, but they use ostrich eggs and salmon roe — while they stand back to back. Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a restaurant empire, but he never made it big on TV. He had a short-lived PBS food-travel series with his wife, but he's known more among foodies than the "cool kids on Twitter," as Roman would say.
"I was really flattered that they chose a pretty technically difficult recipe for me to do," Rea says. "I was like, OK you guys have confidence that I can hold my own."
Rea considers Saffitz and other Bon Appétit stars celebrity chefs. "They're people who walk down the street and will be recognized," he says. "They're superstars."
Perhaps Rea isn't as recognizable because he doesn't show his face on his cooking shows. You see his torso covered in a black apron, his hands, and his arm tattoos. His soothing voice comforts you. The colors pop.
"I shoot it. I edit it. I do the voiceover. I write the instructions, the little jokes. So good and bad, stupid and smart, ugly and pretty. The show is me. It is an extension of me," he says (adding that he does outsource some of the multi-camera footage assembly for his spin-off cooking show Basics with Babish).
His look — the minimalism, the high contrast — can also be seen with food content on Instagram. And on Netflix.
Netflix slides in
Netflix turned Samin Nosrat's bestselling cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, which aimed to give home cooks the confidence to use their own instincts, into a show. With its brightly colored food close-ups, the show would fit right in on Instagram. It's part documentary show, part cooking show, part travel show, a formula that's been used before but is especially inviting with Nosrat's boisterous laugh acting as the secret sauce. It's also only four episodes. Netflix doesn't have a problem bucking TV traditions on series length, and the show is better for it. Nosrat leaves you wanting more.
Sometimes Nosrat, who was named on the Time 100 list as a food pioneer alongside Teigen last year, screws up and it still makes the cut. She thinks of it as a teaching tool. Julia Child did the same thing. So does Rea. In the "Salt" episode, where she visits Japan, she talks about how imperfections in a dish make it human.
David Chang shows a similar attitude in his own Netflix shows. The restaurateur behind Momofuku can lure a mob of hungry hipsters to a hole in the wall with a single tweet. On both shows, Chang talks about his changing perspective on food and internet fame. He's reached a point where he's "OK making really ugly food." And he's still wrestling with having his "life out there in social media." Chang's been leveraging his platform recently to spotlight the struggling restaurant industry amid the coronavirus pandemic. He's closed some of his own businesses too. Likewise, Fieri has been raising money for unemployed restaurant workers.
In the first episode of Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, Chang smokes weed with Seth Rogen as the two eat their way through Vancouver. In another, he rides camels in Morocco with Teigen, who turned her first cookbook, Cravings, into an online platform. Like many celebrity chefs, she's a merch machine. Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner is also only four episodes. The first season of Ugly Delicious, which shows Chang traveling around and unpacking the evolution of various foods like pizza and fried chicken, is eight. The second, which debuted in March, is half as long and kicks off with Chang talking about becoming a dad. It's more about his personal journey than food.
Famous-chef-talking-to-celebrities-while-eating programming isn't new. Anthony Bourdain perfected it. Netflix is just doing it with a new, edgy celebrity chef. The same idea will probably be recycled in a decade from now on whatever the next Netflix is with whoever the next Chang is.
"Everybody wants to be Anthony Bourdain," Salkin says. "They want to travel around the world and tell gritty, reflective stories about the power of food. Every fucking person thinks they can be the new Anthony Bourdain."
Everybody also wants to be the next Guy Fieri. They want to travel around, eat greasy food, and talk to salt-of-the-earth chefs. The Burger Show, a YouTube show turned Hulu series, features chef Alvin Cailan — who became well-known for his food truck turned restaurant Eggslut — eating burgers at various restaurants with celebrities like Padma Lakshmi, Lana Condor, and H. Jon Benjamin.
"In order to sell a television show you need something new unless you’re already somebody," Salkin says.
Making it last
Internet celebrity, even Netflix celebrity, can be fleeting. And being a famous cook doesn't open as many doors as it once did. Winning a food competition show doesn't guarantee you your own spin-off. Many food competition winners, for example, can't get their restaurants to stick. You're also competing for the internet's attention with a bunch of home cooks.
No matter what you call today's celebrity chefs — food celebrity, culinary influencer, YouTuber, Instagram personality — they all have to compete with our ever-shortening attention spans to keep their stars shining bright. Yet, the concept of a celebrity chef isn't going away, even if the definition has loosened over time.
"As all times do, we will create our own celebrities who are right for the times," Salkin says. "Just wait, the next food celebrity is going to use the moniker," he pauses for drama, "the Sourdough Stud."
Nicole Gallucci contributed to this report.