July 2011

Celebrity Chefs: Why all the Fuss?

Author: Courtney Hampson

In the summer of 2002, I moved from semi-metropolitan New Jersey to farmland New Jersey (yes, there are farms in N.J.—it is the “garden state” for crying out loud!), for my ex’s job. While he was working every day, I was twiddling my thumbs trying to determine where I should set my career sights. I settled on a (short-lived) stint as marketing manager at a local winery (yes, they have grapes in N.J., too). Each summer the winery would host a local festival: food, wine, entertainment, etc. Unfortunately, I started my new gig about 10 days before said festival. So, when a local chef who was going to do a cooking demo cancelled at the last minute, I was volunteered to man that post.

My boss had no way of knowing that my culinary repertoire was limited to (burnt) grilled cheese and scrambled eggs that usually morphed into fried eggs because I tended to over-scramble. I’m not sure if having the aforementioned knowledge would have mattered all that much to him, so I kept it to myself. We were desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. I did what any professional would: I panicked. And then I turned to the Food Network for support. Lo and behold, Rachel Ray was whipping up a 30-minute meal that I was certain I could master. I went to bed feeling a sense of relief until…

I received the news that my demo recipe should, of course, include ingredients sourced locally. I was planning a teriyaki and ginger grilled chicken topped with mango salsa. Feeling pretty confident that mangoes were not indigenous to N.J., I had to get creative. And I did. I added wine. Heck, it was local!

Come festival day, I stood atop a shoddy stage, with propane burners and demonstrated to a crowd of old ladies “my” recipe. And guess what? They loved it. (Did I mention the free wine flowing at the festival that likely numbed the palate?) Alas, I didn’t burn anything, and there were no reported illnesses. Success.
I learned a lot that day. Anyone can cook if they channel their creativity and have fun with it. Today, chefs who used to be “back-of-the-house” personnel are now front and center, infusing their personality into each dish. They’ve come a long way.

In 1963, Julia Child waltzed into our living rooms from her kitchen. With her almost jarring yet endearing vocal pitch and inane ability to honor the five-second rule when a chicken would find itself on the floor, Child brought French cooking and the allure of everything French to the American people. Dubbed “our Lady of the Ladle” by Time magazine in 1966, Child was likely our first on-air celebrity chef. Under her PBS-documented tutelage, desperate housewives everywhere found the wherewithal to become masters of their kitchen domain.

Fast forward a few decades and then, BAM! Emeril Lagasse shows up on the Food
Network scene and kicks it up a notch by tossing his signature “essence” into every dish. Folks were tuning in by the kitchen-load, not necessarily for the recipes, rather for the entertainment—live music, audience participation, sass and sarcasm. And a celebrity chef is born!

As the Foot Network began to take shape, adding more notable chefs to its repertoire, a cult following slowly began to take shape. America was interested in cooking at home again. We would watch Bobby Flay conduct a cooking demo on the Today show and then find ourselves in line at the butcher ordering twice-ground brisket for our burger buffet that night because “Bobby told us to!”
Food Network knew the recipe for success, and adding hunky chefs to the mix didn’t hurt the cause. Easy recipes for the at-home cook and eye-candy to boot? The chef-groupie is born!

Tyler Florence was my chef crush. And that was my little secret—right up until I had to work with him. I have no shame, and I will admit that the first time I met Tyler, I got a little hot and bothered. Okay, a lot hot. And I can probably also admit that my cheeks flushed with every exchange for the first year we worked together. By year three, I was cured of the flush and the crush, but remained ever-impressed by his uncanny ability to whip up a Thanksgiving meal, on stage, in front of hundreds, in 30 minutes, and then work the crowd as if it were an audience full of his closest friends.

Locally, our celebrity chef star shines bright. Food Network’s Dinner Impossible star Robert Irvine, opened eat! on Hilton Head and made having his food totally possible for locals and tourists alike. Irvine also appears completely at ease in the national spotlight and the Lowcountry limelight. In fact, I bumped into him on the sandbar a few years ago. Of course, I was so star-struck that the only thing I managed to say was, “I know Tyler Florence.” Classic.

And lest we forget, our very own Orchid Paulmeier of One Hot Mama’s fame is battling it out plate-for-plate each week for the crown of the “The Next Food Network Star.”

We are a country obsessed!

Melany Mullens, publicist with Wagstaff Worldwide, who represents some of the biggest names in Southern cooking has this to say: “The rising popularity of food-focused TV networks and shows has given the at-home chef a chance to learn from kitchen masters and makes intricate cooking and constructing complex dishes more accessible than ever. It’s hard to imagine a time before the Food Network when Emeril, Mario, and Bobby weren’t around to show us behind the scenes of their kitchens and give tips. How can you not want to test recipes and expand your palate to try foods you see others enjoy! Thus, a foodie is born. Molecular gastronomy, innovative flavor profiles, and making beautiful, tasty food are some of the simplest ways to be a rock star chef and accrue the requisite foodie groupies.”

And groupie I am. I subscribe to three foodie newsletters and have a grossly ridiculous collection of cookbooks from “celebrity chefs.” I rip recipes from magazines as if I may go hungry without. And I get a smirk on my face each time I realize how lucky I am that my day job allows me be a part of the team that plans the annual Music to Your Mouth food and wine event at Palmetto Bluff, juggling chefs, winemakers, pig farmers, BBQ masters, and honeybee herders, among others. (Shameless plug!)

Who have I become? With thousands of Food Network hours logged, I actually relish my time in the kitchen. Now, I don’t have the fever to ever perform the mango salsa shuffle on stage again, but I’ve definitely come a long way from burnt grilled cheese.

Who’s hungry?

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