Some of today’s biggest celebrity chefs have never worked in a restaurant kitchen, some of them have been sought out, packaged, and produced by Food Network on the basis of their TV presence, and some make a living slinging every kind of frozen meal and kitchen appliance imaginable.
So, we thought we’d take you through a brief history of celebrity chefs (you know, like, back from when they actually cooked), to give you a better sense of how our culinary landscape has changed, and so you can appear extremely educated next time you have a chat with
Anthony Bourdain about 17th century cuisine. ( It happens.)
And we’re not starting with
Julia Child, either. We’re going way back. Like back to the Renaissance. Let’s get started.
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Bartolomeo Scappi was a Renaissance chef who served in the kitchen of Pope Pius IV for most of his career. Scappi is credited with compiling the very first cookbook in 1577, Opera Dell'arte del Cucinare. It contains around 1000 recipes, plus info on period cooking techniques and tools (including the first known picture of a fork!). The book also includes a declaration of parmesan as the best cheese on earth and an indication of the origin of foie gras: writes Scappi, "the liver of [a] domestic goose raised by the Jews is of extreme size and weighs [between] two and three pounds." Thanks, Jews!
François Vatel was the chef in charge of a 2000-guest banquet held in honor of King Louis XIV in 1671. As the story goes, poor François became so distressed by a late seafood delivery that he killed himself in the middle of service. His body was discovered when someone came looking for him to tell him that the seafood had finally been delivered. Rough. But, also, he's credited with inventing Chantilly cream, which is delicious! Things couldn't have been that bad, François!
Marie-Antoine Carême is hailed as the granddaddy of haute cuisine. He rose to fame at the turn of the 19th century, playing personal chef to such historical figures as Napoleon, King George IV, and Tsar Nicholas I. Top Chef: Just Desserts fans have this guy to thank for the existence of showpieces. He became widely known for his several foot tall centerpieces made of components like sugar, marzipan, and pastry. Plus, he basically engaged in the most intense Top Chef challenge of all time when his mentor set him to the task of creating a whole year’s worth of menus, without repetition, and using only seasonal produce. (He passed.)
Auguste Escoffier is regarded as the pre-eminent 20th century French chef. He took the landscape of haute cuisine established by Vatel, simplified, and modernized it to give us French cooking as we know it today. Escoffier spent the majority of his professional career in a partnership with Cesar Ritz, organizing and overseeing the kitchen at the Savoy Hotel in London, and, later, at the Ritz Hotels. Through his work with Ritz establishing kitchens, he invented the brigade de cuisine hierarchy used by commercial kitchens today (also, Melba toast!). Sous-chefs have this guy to thank for making them #2.
Fast-forward to the 1940s and we finally get some Americans in the mix.
James Beard was host of the very first cooking show on TV — NBC's I Love To Eat, which premiered in 1946. Beard's mission into the '50s quickly became fighting against the processed food movement that domestic scientists were promoting. With a background in French technique, he encouraged Americans to use fresh, local ingredients in their cooking and avoid the Sara Lee aisle. After his death, the James Beard Foundation was set up in his honor, which now hosts the James Beard Awards, widely regarded as the Oscars of the culinary industry.
Meanwhile, over in the UK,
Fanny Cradock was becoming England's first celebrity chef. With a cooking show of her own airing on BBC in the 1950s, Fanny became known for her extravagant-looking, but economical dishes. A follower of Escoffier's, she gave all her dishes French names (despite the fact that she was cooking national dishes and credited with saving British cooking after the war). Unfortunately, she got a little kooky in her later years and was widely parodied, becoming the joke of BBC. We don't understand why. With that wig and makeup job, she just looks like a Real Housewives predecessor...
Ahh, finally. In the 1960s came the lovable
Julia Child. While she wasn't the first chef on TV, she quickly became the most widely known and well-recognized. Julia managed to shake all the pretension out of French cuisine and made it accessible for an American audience with her laid back approach to cooking. Her "every dish should have one mistake in it" attitude quickly endeared her to American home cooks. Julia's home kitchen, designed by her husband to accommodate her height, became the setting for three of her TV shows and is now preserved in the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
Marco Pierre White
Back to the UK we go with cookery's original badass,
Marco Pierre White. In the 1990s, Marco became the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars in England at the age of 33. Marco was also the trailblazer for the hot-tempered, rebel-in-a-white-jacket persona adopted by many celebrity chefs today (most notably, his protege and eventual arch nemesis Gordon Ramsay). Upon his retirement from restaurant kitchens, Marco famously returned his Michelin stars and turned his back on the organization, declaring, "I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself."
The Modern Celebrity Chef: Mario Batali, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri
Celebrity chefs of the 21st century fall into categories carved out by such figures as
Mario Batali, Rachael Ray, and Guy Fieri. Mario was an actual restaurant chef who landed a cooking show and a subsequent branding empire. Rachael isn't a chef at all, but became known for her cooking series and is now the Oprah of the culinary world. And Guy was deliberately placed into a machine specifically designed to churn out and market a new celebrity chef on Food Network Star. From dramatic seafood-stress-related suicides to the chortling, wildly influential Julia Child, this is where we've come. Good or bad, we can't wait to taste what's next.