Who Wins When Celebrity Chefs Face Off?
I'd been working on a newsletter about culinary trinities -- those combos of aromatics usually added in a ratio of 1:2:3 and used in nearly every major cuisine around the world as the foundation for flavor. As in the French mirepoix, which combines celery, onions and carrots. Or the Indian trio of garlic, ginger and onion. Or Spanish sofrito with garlic, onion and tomato.
But instead of finishing that letter, I got distracted by the fight that Anthony Bourdain picked with a battery of Food Network hosts -- specifically Paula Deen, Sandra Lee, Guy Fieri, and Rachel Ray. We've added a link below to where you can read what chef Bourdain said about each of them in a TV Guide interview.
I am a huge fan of Tony Bourdain. I've enjoyed his books, cooked his recipes, eaten at Les Halles when he was in the kitchen, and am usually charmed by his candor and challenged by his adventuresome palate. But in this instance, I disagreed with him. Maybe not what he meant but how he said it. He was given a chance to say something constructive and instead he got personal.
Paula Deen, in a manner consistent with her feisty personality, came back swinging and her millions of fans circled the wagons. [Disclosure: Paula Deen and I have the same literary agent and book publisher.] Her verbal punches ranged from saying she's a champion for working families to crowing about how much she does for charity, neither point really responding to Bourdain's charge that her food is unhealthy and her deals with huge food companies compromise her choices. And she, too, got personal with that favorite come-back that usually follows being told you should do better: she called him an elitist.
The other three FoodTV hosts stayed quiet and kept their heads down from all the pots and pans flying across the room.
Here's what I think. First, I think Tony Bourdain missed an opportunity to point out that when TV cooking celebrities get a hold of their audience's attention, they should protect their viewers' best interests. I know Paula Deen is the queen of tasty southern cooking, but let's face it -- much of what she makes is simply terrible for us. He sort of said that, but he was so insulting that Deen and her fans responded by throwing virtual coconut cream pies at him.
Second, his comments about Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee were just mean and provocative. I've hardly ever watched anything by Mr. Fieri aside from an occasional promo for one of his programs but I somehow doubt he is a danger to how Americans eat every day.
Sandra Lee, however, has a very successful home cooking enterprise. Because she makes an impact on American kitchens, she should be willing to take some scrutiny and defend her gratuitous use of processed food: why go out of your way to make a dessert with peaches canned with high fructose corn syrup when a fresh peach is not only healthier and just as easy to cook with, but can also be cheaper? I know she does major charitable deeds, but as with Paula Deen, there is a kind of charity/commerce loop in which large-scale good works are made possible because of corporate sponsorships and endorsements. This can't help but provoke the question -- do the ends justify the means? I so wish we didn't have to choose.
Bourdain's last target was Rachel Ray. This past Saturday I was at home and had the television tuned to FoodTV and there she was making one of her 30-minute meals. This episode had a menu of chicken Francese, egg tagliatelle, and a salad made with spinach, strawberries and fresh basil. She made this classic chicken dish with pieces of pounded chicken breasts dipped in egg and sautéed, then finished with a white wine, chicken stock, and beurre blanc sauce. The pasta was cooked al dente and tossed with gremolata, a vibrant mixture of minced fresh herbs, garlic, anchovies and lemon zest. And the salad was dressed with a shallot and balsamic vinaigrette, lightened with a little fresh lemon juice. Nice, eh?
But what was particularly notable in watching Rachel Ray knock out this very appealing meal was how tired she seemed. Her signature enthusiasm was certainly on display, but beneath it there was an ever so evident sense of exhaustion. As if just as soon as the cameras were off, she'd be happy to collapse into a chair, take a generous sip of wine, and eat the dinner she just prepared. Just like the rest of us on most days, minus the cameras.
I appreciate that not every personality works for all of us and you may be warmed by Paula Deen's y'alls or annoyed by Guy Fieri's haircut. But what we need to mostly remember is that each of them, in their own way, is trying to get us into the kitchen. And to that effort, I say amen. I like to think that Paula Deen's charm and appetite has turned a few folks from buying crappy fried chicken to making their own; I know -- it's still fried chicken, but maybe that new home cook might soon also try grilled chicken or baked fish. Likewise for Rachel Ray whose confidence has significantly helped lessen that still present fear factor that hangs over so many of our kitchens.
In another part of the Tony Bourdain TV Guide interview he notes that he is on the road for 220 days a year. Obviously he's not at home making dinner for himself and his family every night like the rest of us. I salute his high standards but none of us is able to aim that high every day. We don't have the time. We don't have the budget. We don't have the stamina. And frankly, I don't think we have the appetite.
Still, if we don't have aspirations, we achieve less while standing on a slippery slope that only heads downhill. And when someone steps into the shoes that make you a role model, as the FoodTV hosts have done, wittingly or not, a responsibility comes with the job: to set high standards and make anyone who watches a better home cook. What we make doesn't have to be fancy or elitist. But it should be good. Good quality, good flavor, good health, and a good experience to make.
With that goal in mind, I promise I'll finish that piece about the trinities.