went to the "chefs/foodies talking about celebrity" panel discussion at the astor center. speaking: mitchell davis from the james beard foundation, andrew carmellini, gwen hyman (his wife), gail simmons (food and wine/top chef) and david chang. moderated by darra goldstein of gastronomica.
let's first start out with the fact darra sucks as a moderator. word to the wise for anyone planning a panel discussion, do not pick as a moderator someone who LOVES to hear themself talk. moderators are meant to disappear into the ether. we're supposed to forget they're there. we are NOT supposed to listen to them asking questions that aren't questions but grand statements. we are NOT supposed to hear them interject and interrupt constantly with useless banter.
that being said, it was still a fairly enjoyable discussion. darra opened with the terrible, AWFUL proposition that people are now going to cooking school to be famous. i've never heard something so stupid in my life. since palin's last interview. carmellini and chang both agree they got into the business because they liked actually cooking. eureka! that they're not trying to be famous, that fame is annoying, that they're there to cook. the end. what was discussed less was the fact that unless you have a bunch of people following you around and being all culty, you won't get anywhere in this business. backers won't hand money to a chef unless that chef has acquired a following from somewhere.
davis pointed to the origination of this culty stuff as being the time when chefs started putting their names on doors. "before that, it was all about coming from l'ecole." since then, chefs have started stepping out, making names for themselves.
again with a lame question from darra: is it harder for you to cook now that people know more about food and food preparation? she listed as an example, two books devoted entirely on knife skills. chang, wisely, "just because you have a book about knife skills doesn't mean you have them." an answer that sounded brilliant after the stupidity of the question. and again, the chefs reminded us that they cook the food they cook because it's what they want to do, not because it's what people want.
but it's true that eating, and the profile among chefs and restaurants has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. gwen discussed the reactions of shame she'd get when she told people she was dating a cook. that the only cooking shows on television were julia child re-runs. the best line of the evening, because it was both funny and true, came from carmellini: "now, people are taking pictures of their food. you bring over a scallop and they will twitter: 'there's too much salt in my scallop.' seriously."
another smart line from davis: "knowing where the best taco truck is gives you a certain social capital." that is T.R.U.E. i am positively more popular and cooler amongst my friends because i stay so attuned to the food scene in new york. it helps that i also hang out with people who make enough money to actually go out to eat on a regular basis. i imagine we belong to a fairly small subset in terms of being able to afford caring about shit like what chef is moving where. and luckly my attorney's salary leaves me more than enough to eat out with often.
on the shift from white tableclothes to a place like ko that has zero service and hard stools: chang discussed what seemed like a defining moment in his career when working at a restaurant that was trying to get 3 stars, he was told that, in order of importance, food came third after service and wine. he said he remembered being really aggitated that food had dropped so low as a priority at a restaurant. and i don't disagree with his resentment though i'm still of the opinion that superior service elevates good food to a level that is just beyond.
rocco dispirito came up several times as someone who epitomizes the "fameball chef". gail recounted a story that a friend had told her about a conversation that friend had had with rocco. how is that for a huge load of hearsay! but i'll recount it here anyhow. rocco was asking what he could do to re-gain the respect of the food community. the person told him he needed to get back in the kitchen and, you know, cook. rocco's supposed response? "but why would i do that? right now, i make 15 times more money, work 15 times less and have a nicer life with more time to do what i want" the moral of this story is that chefs work long hours, don't get paid nearly enough and the work is damn hard. and that rocco is a pussy. also, i could get better plastic surgery in tiajuana than whatever the hell he had done to his face. off topic but i'm just sayin.
the one complaint that carmellini and chang seemed to have is that the plethora of kids coming out of cooking schools these days seem not to understand that there is a hazing process that one needs to get through. a precedent that needs to be followed if you want to make it into this world. i think the cooking shows, the accesibility make people think that if they like to cook and have money for cooking school that that's enough. wrong answer. memo to new chefs...you have to work your way up, preferably starting washing dishes or slicing potatoes, just like every other damn chef that came before you. also, don't bother asking for a day off. and don't expect to work less than 90 hours a week either. and if you think you'll get this job for more than 25K a year, you must be kidding.
there was some discussion of cost/benefit analysis and how a chef needs to also be a businessman. which reminds me i need to sift through my el bulli book to find out how the fuck that place stays alive when they have a 2 to 1 ratio of staff members to patrons. does the guy have donors? it blows my mind. the cost of the meal cannot cover running costs.
chang talked about how much he despised ko's open kitchen which surprised me, mostly because i think it's a huge draw, especially since, as the discussion was based on, chefs are celebrities these days and people are worshipping at their temples. if i'm not getting comfort and i'm not getting service, having that interraction and getting to watch substantial. not that the food isn't good enough for the visit alone (it is) but is it worth the price and an aching ass if i had to sit and look at a blank wall instead? so i actually raised my had to ask about it, but i think i said something like, "how could ko exist without an open kitchen?" and i admittedly used the wrong words. i maybe should have phrased it more like, "do you think it would be as successful without an open kitchen?" so dave gave the extremely unsatisfying answer of, "we had no choice, it had to be an open kitchen. there was no option." which didn't at all address the question i'd meant to ask.
and he claims he remembers me having come in but i doubt that's true. i never introduced himself, nor exchanged words with him that i remember. we mostly had common conversation with pete who was being lovely and chatty once people left the joint. but then he made a comment about how he's working on the service which made me think he connected me at sight to this blog (since i've absolutely complained about how much i could tell the chefs HATED having to place a dish on the counter in front of me). that would be weird since there are about 5 people in the world who i don't know personally but who would know i wrote here if they saw me. it's a mystery.
at the end of the day if chefs are to be called celebrities, it's because people admire what they do and enjoy the product they produce. my mom fucking loves rahel ray because rachel ray gives her recipes that make her feel like a capable cook. that's justified. and so chang may hate the admirers like myself but i wouldn't be his fan if i thought his food sucked. he should accept the adoration and be thankful for it. there may be people who like him because it's trendy and may not care for his food but those people are few and far between. i adore those who i admire. those who i'm envious of. those who are brilliant at things that i love. and besides politics, there isn't anything in this world i love more than food. i worked jean george's wedding and was on cloud nine for chrissakes. chang is in good company as far as "chefs that im a fan of."
in other news, got yet another rejection letter from el bulli. getting a reservation there is akin to winning the lottery and i am not a lucky person. you could give me 50 scratch off tickets and i wouldn't win $2. suppose i'll try again next year...