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October 28, 2009

The chef as media whore



I'm still working my way through the terrible trends, or at least the ones that affect us locally. No. 2 is "The Chef as Media Whore."

Remember, these are "in order of annoyance."

That surprises me. There are a lot more annoying restaurant trends I can think of.

Here's what the story on the decade's bad dining trends said about this one:

They cook, of course. They also sell shoes and star in reality shows. Sometimes they cook. Rocco DiSpirito, a mid-decade pan flash, is arguably the finest example.

"There are celebrity chefs who manage to stay chefs and run excellent restaurants," said [Tim] Zagat, "but there are times when you wonder what a chef is supposed to be doing. TV brings people into their restaurant. But when do they find time to cook?" ...

Baltimoreans wouldn't be flocking to Volt in Frederick if it weren't for Bravo's Top Chef. But owner/chef Bryan Voltaggio still seems pretty committed to his kitchen. (It would be interesting to see if diners who ate there when he was in Las Vegas filming the show noticed any difference in the quality of the food.)

Baltimore has always had its celebrity chefs. But they were simply people like Michael Rourke at Hampton's and Mark Henry at the Milton Inn who got their fame by producing great food.

About the most media they did was appear on a three-minute segment on a local TV show every once in a while. For Baltimore's most successful restaurants, like the Prime Rib or Tio Pepe, how many diners could name the executive chef?

On the whole, this seems to me to be one of those trends that isn't all that bad. Celebrity chefs have upped the interest in sophisticated restaurant food, and that can't be a bad thing.

(AP Photo/Jim Cooper)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:06 AM | | Comments (13)


I agree with this being a terribIe trend However I draw a line between the real celebrity chefs (most of whom have one name like Mario or Rocco who open a dozen restaurants and cook at none, show up on every TV program that will have them, and eventually sell product with their name) and the cheftestants from Top Chef. After several meals at Volt I have almost always found Brian Voltaggio in attendance if not cooking my meal certainly supervising. I have also found him to be more interested in his cooking than celebrity. As long as he maintains this attitude especially if he ends up winning I agree with EL that the show has succeded in showcasing a really talented chef"s restaurant. If he bcomes an utter clown like most of the full-time TV chefs I'll add him to the one named idiots, Brian.

Okay, Rocco? That show sucked, but it was like 7 years ago, and I doubt anyone has really loved his food before or after. Also -- no celebrity chef has one name, you (general you) are just doing it - Mario Batali and Rocco DiSpirito. I think Emeril was probably the closest one to being fully "one named".

Most of these other chefs had hard working roles before they fell into some sort of celebrity status. They start with one restaurant, yes, and eventually with enough success they transition into a "ceo" of sorts, having to move between their various restaurants. Even a single restaurant can have their very outgoing and public chef, while the real work is done by his staff. If you (general you) worked that life and saw a chance to cash out, I say, God bless you. Not to say there aren't some bad celebrities out there, but theyre not all bad.

The ones that really get me are the Food Network "stars" who really have media-whore empires.. paula, rachel, even tyler florence, as much as I like his recipes, sells out pretty hard for even me to swallow.

I don't begrudge anyone for hitting a big payday for all the work they've done in the past. Most people don't realize that being a chef/owner is generally not a high paying job. Generally speaking they will pull a salary big enough to get by but not cripple the restaurant, and if the restaurant is successful (very big IF) the profits will mostly go to the investors and future restaurant ventures, with a little getting kicked back to the chef. If all goes according to plan, the executive chef will pull a decent salary and some profits from 2-4 locations, adding up to something totaling in the low six-figures.

It's not a ton of money we're talking about, so when the Food network or Fox comes to you and says they want to do a show with you that could result in millions of dollars, it's really hard to say no. Are you turning down the big payday to sweat it out in a kitchen 80 hours a week for 10% of what you could be making for the sake of not " selling out"? I know I'm not.

While I don't necessarily care for the TV persona of Bobby Flay, Emeril, Gordon Ramsay and whoever else, I certainly don't blame them for making as much money as they possibly can to provide for their families or cashing in on all the years of sweating it out just to try and keep their restaurants afloat.

I think the CIA have a lot to do with this. I visited several times while my daughter was attending college a couple of miles up the road. When you walk down the main corridor of the central building, with the multi-media lecture halls (including cameras sending the video to a big screen above) on the left and the show kitchens on the right, it feels more like television than cooking.

As a graduate I have to say the show kitchens are for the benefit of the visitors, and the the cameras are for when they have demos so that everyone can see. So yes, for you, the visitor, Im sure it was more like TV.

I'm pretty sure there is a restaurant in "Little Italy" with a banner claiming the best chef in Baltimore city. Unfortunately he has been passed away for quite awhile now.

I don't know if the one name celeb chefs are really all that anymore. Although I still enjoy watching Sara Moulton and Julia re-runs (she needs no last name ever!), I think the cake chefs are the big stars of the small screen right now.

I know that in my house, it is not unusual for us to watch 3 cake shows in a row if nothing else is on. And, our own Ace of Cakes, Duff, is still our favorite too.

More insight into celebrity chefs (and "chefs" like Rachael Ray) at

I think it's a little insulting to mention Bryan Voltaggio and Rocco in the same breath. Bryan has been on one show, and if you watch the show, he's clearly not there for the celebrity, as he barely looks at the camera during interviews. His restaurant is getting more attention - fine. It deserves it.

Rocco DiSpirito, on the other hand, was a extremely-well-regarded NY chef until he decided that not one but two seasons of train-wreck melodrama was better for his career than cooking. Consequently he lost or left all of his restaurants and went on to shilling cat food. He lost a lot of credibility in the industry, and that's why he's a media whore. He sought attention, and he got it, but not in a good way.

Thanx Minx, perhaps you said what I mean't better.

Well, there's the chef of Gertrude's, John Shields, who has had a couple of shows on WMPT. I think Coastal Cooking might be current.

If you count radio, Jerry Pellegrino, of Corks, is on "Radio Kitchen," and Hugh Sisson of Sisson's (though he's not a chef), is on the "Cellar Notes" show, both on WYPR.

jupiter, both John Shields PBS shows have been in reruns forever; Chesapeake Bay Cooking dates to 1998, while Coastal Cooking dates to 2004. The making of two PBS series in a decade (with no new shows in the last 5 years) hardly makes him a media whore.

Speaking of which, not that long ago, my Sunday newspaper coupon insert included an ad and coupon for Rachael Ray's Nutrish dog brand. When I showed the ad to my dog, I think he threw up in his mouth. I haven't had the heart to use the coupon ever since.

hmpstd, that was a cruel thing to do to your dog.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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