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Goodby to the Era of the Celebrity : Chefs

Times Restaurant Editor

The dinner party is over. The season of the celebrity chef is coming to an end.

It was a phenomenon of the ‘80s. Wolfgang Puck--along with Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme--changed the way we ate. In return we gave them not only fortune, but more fame than any chef in America had ever dreamed of. Those who’ve already got it can keep their fame, but the next generation of chefs will have to settle for fortune. The era of adulation is over. This is not because people are no longer eating out; Americans eat out now more than ever before. And it is not because we lack a new crop of talented young chefs: The chefs who are getting started today are probably the best-trained group of cooks America has ever had. And it is certainly not because the restaurants that are opening up aren’t any good. The quality of restaurants in America continues to rise.

What is different is our attitude towards eating. Good food is no longer a delightful surprise--it is simply what people expect to be served when they go out to eat. Americans have matured as diners--and have become a little bit blase about the whole thing. They are no longer astonished by chefs who create wonderful new dishes, and they are certainly not ready to worship them.

What a change! For the past 10 years you could hardly pick up a magazine or newspaper without finding the photograph of some chef staring out at you. They came smiling out of TV sets too, and when you walked into a bookstore there they were, celebrity chefs, looking up from the back of bookjackets. As the hostess of one trendy restaurant put it, the customers were so enthralled with the chef that it made her feel like “an acolyte to the Pope.” Indeed, large numbers of people were willing to pay big bucks to meet the chefs in the flesh at charity galas.

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Not all chefs, of course, qualified for celebrity status; there seemed to be certain unspoken rules. In the first place, a celebrity chef had to be young (which meant that the late Jean Bertranou, founder of L’Ermitage and L.A.'s most influential chef, didn’t qualify). And, with the exception of Wolfgang Puck (who compensated by launching two separate food trends), a celebrity chef had to be American. That left out the French (Claude Segal, currently of Ma Be for instance), the Italians (Antonio Tommasi, currently at Locanda Veneta), and the Asians (although Tommy Tang certainly tried). He (or she) had to be attractive--or at least photogenic. Charisma was a definite necessity--the lack of this important quality is the only reason that Bruce Marder, whose West Beach Cafe and Rebecca’s were both real trend setters, never got the celebrity he deserved.

A chef didn’t get to be a celebrity by simply working in the kitchen; he had to own his own restaurant--or at least a small piece of it. Everybody in L.A. loved Wolfgang Puck’s food when he was working at Ma Maison, but he didn’t become a celebrity until he opened Spago. The fact that the restaurant made a splashy design statement didn’t hurt; the unique design of Trumps gave Michael Roberts added cachet too. And in addition to all of these qualities, the public was most pleased when its celebrity chefs were well educated and articulate as well.

Most importantly, though, a celebrity chef had to stake out new territory. There was the California Cuisine crew (Puck at Spago, Michael McCarty and his bunch at Michael’s, Michael Roberts at Trumps). John Sedlar at St. Estephe invented a newly sophisticated, French-inspired Southwest cuisine. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken created a new kind of cooking at City Restaurant by giving Third-World food real respect. Puck sealed his celebrity status by bringing us California-Asian cooking at Chinois. For a while it seemed that the possibilities were endless; celebrity chefs seemed to be opening new restaurants every minute, each time featuring some fabulous new food.

In just 10 years we have gone from nouvelle cuisine to California cuisine, from Franco-Japanese to cross-cultural cooking. We’ve explored regional American food. We have discovered Thai food and 10 new regions of China. We have grazed and we have taken to tapas. We have had so much new food thrown at us that everybody’s gotten tired of eating experiments. Nowadays nobody wants to hear about new cuisines. Nobody wants any new inventions. Our palates are jaded. We long for rustic fare, for meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Which is problematic for a chef. After all, how famous can you get serving food that any mom can make?

Where does that leave the chefs who would be celebrities? Standing in the kitchen, staring at the stove. And, for some of them, wondering what they’re doing there.

Consider the picture of the four young men accompanying this story. They may look like members of a ‘70s-era band called “The Chefs,” but the photograph was sent out with the press release that announced the opening of Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica 10 years ago. If the chefs look arrogant in the photo, you should have heard them talk.

Ken Frank (he’s the one on the right, posed like a lead guitarist) was prone to announcements like this one: “In 6 months in France you can learn to be a chef in L.A.” And of course he knew what he was talking about. At the ripe old age of 23 he was one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs. When asked why he was going to work for Michael McCarty instead of opening his own place he said airily: “At my age I can afford to wait another year. I can wait for the right time and the right place. Backers are no trouble to find.”

Meanwhile a journalist told Jonathan Waxman (the tall one in the back who looks like the bass player in every British band) that she would make him famous, and he smiled and said deprecatingly, “Don’t do me any favors.” He had every intention of being famous, his tone of voice implied, and he wouldn’t need anybody’s help, thank you.

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This was clearly a new breed of chef. And they knew it. One afternoon, as Mark Peel (standing in the middle where the drummer would be) fileted salmon for a terrine, he made the following pronouncement: “All chefs should go to college so that they’re not dull.” As for owner Michael McCarty (the one in the front pretending to be Mick Jagger), he said from the start that his restaurant would serve food that would “blow your socks off.” He was proud of what he was doing, and proud of the people he was doing it with. “They’re all here for two reasons. 1. Because they’d like to work with me, and 2. because I’m not a 50-year-old Frenchman who owns the restaurant and is mean. We’re doing something different here, and I’m allowing it to happen.” Encouraging it, even. He expected his chefs to move on. “They all,” he said, “one day will probably have their own restaurant.”

And of course he was right.

In the old days it would have taken years for a young chef to open his own restaurant. But in the days of the celebrity chef, it often took mere hours. Ken Frank left Michael’s within months to open his own place, La Toque. At the time he said, “The day I own my own restaurant I’ll start making money.” Today he says: “Those were famous last words. It was actually the day I stopped making money.” Frank was to discover that fame and fortune do not necessarily go hand in hand; despite his status as a celebrity chef, his La Toque has been plagued by financial problems and a few years ago filed for Chapter 11 status.

Jonathan Waxman waited four years before going off to New York to open, to great acclaim, Jams. It was followed, in rapid succession, by Bud’s, Hulot’s and Jams in London. Waxman hopped around the world, cooking and being charming. He was quoted everywhere; every time you opened a food magazine, there he was. As he said just last week: “I was the big-mouth frog who tried to eat too many flies. I tried to do too much. I burned myself out.” He recently sold his share in all the restaurants but Hulot’s and is now finishing his (long overdue) book while considering his next move.

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Michael McCarty billed himself as chef/proprietor when he opened his restaurant. But he never went overboard about being a celebrity chef, and over the years he began emphasizing the proprietor part of the equation. “You have to understand,” he once said, “I’m a wheeler-dealer. It’s all a matter of juggling time and money.” He got out of the kitchen and kept juggling: in the air at the moment, a Michael’s in New York and a big luxury hotel on Santa Monica’s beach.

Meanwhile Mark Peel was in no hurry to be famous. First he went to college. Then he went from Michael’s to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and then to Spago, which he opened with Wolfgang Puck. He was head chef there for four years, working quietly in Puck’s shadow. Just last month he and his wife Nancy Silverton opened Campanile on La Brea. “If you’re talking about celebrity,” he now says, “you’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t want to be a celebrity chef. It’s too much work--traveling all over, having your picture taken. It’s insidious. The danger is you stop paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing--you stop thinking about cooking. And that’s why I got into this business in the first place. I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t play the saxophone. But I really can cook. And that’s what I want to do.”

For a while, cooking is what lots of people wanted to do. The occupation, in fact, achieved such cachet that restaurants in New York and Los Angeles actually instituted “Chef for a Day” programs; wealthy patrons paid big bucks for the privilege of coming into the kitchen and cooking with the chef of their choice.

Meanwhile professional cooking schools had long waiting lists. Parents who just a few years earlier would have slit their throats had their sons or daughters announced that they wanted to go work in a restaurant began speaking proudly of “My son the chef.” You would have thought that working in a kitchen was a glamorous activity.

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It isn’t. “I always thought working in a kitchen was really fun,” says Jonathan Waxman. “I still love it. But I’m getting old, and it’s a young person’s game.”

Waxman, you should know, is not yet 40. Old for an athlete and old for a cook, another profession that requires strength, stamina and the ability to withstand pressure, heat and noise. Seen through the glass at Citrus, or in the exhibition kitchen at Spago, restaurant cooking looks clean and easy. “Most young chefs,” says Ken Frank, “don’t know how hard the work is. You work 80 hours a week; if you own your own place, add 25-30 hours. And very few break through to the top level. The odds of becoming Wolfgang are very slim.”

And becoming slimmer all the time. “It’s a lot more expensive to open a restaurant today than it was a few years ago,” says Jonathan Waxman. “And the big cities--New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco--are saturated. There are so many people vying for not that much business.” Says Puck: “Maybe in a different place it might be different. But in L.A. there are already so many well-known chefs.”

Put another way, a Los Angeles chef today has to do more than just serve interesting food. He or she must have a keen business sense, watch the bottom line, and figure out a way to make good food that doesn’t cost too much. During the height of restaurant madness money hardly seemed to matter. But in today’s market, price has become the key to survival; faced with so many wonderful restaurants, diners are increasingly opting to eat in the ones that offer not only good food but good value as well.

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It’s hard to be a star on a tight budget. Which is difficult for some young chefs to swallow. They’ve gone to school, they’ve learned their craft and they know where to buy the finest ingredients; now they think of themselves as artists ready to serve their masterpieces to a waiting world. To their dismay they are discovering that Americans don’t want to eat art; they just want to eat dinner.

Ken Frank thinks that the new mood is fine. “Look,” he says, “let’s be real. The level of admiration is quite out of proportion to the work that we do. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. But when I read the things that people write about chefs . . . the adjectives are too big. Chefs are not rocket scientists.”

Even the restaurant junkies seem to be noticing that. Five years ago I wrote an article about Foodies who ate all their meals in restaurants. Producer Jay Weston was one of them; he told me he had been so busy eating in restaurants that he hadn’t had time to work in a year or two. Today he says he is as enthusiastic about eating as he ever was, but adds, “I’m more cynical about restaurants that I visit now. And more critical.”

He is not alone. Everybody has become more critical.

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“When you get put up on a pedestal,” says Ken Frank, “people expect more than you can give them. Take me: People were always calling me a wunderkind. I may have been precocious, but I wasn’t a genius. I just cooked food that people liked. Then when the slightest little thing was wrong people would say--see, the butter’s too cold-- he’s no genius.”

Today few chefs are being called geniuses. You don’t see that telephone company ad featuring Wolfgang and Alice any more either. And when was the last time you watched Paul Prudhomme on TV? Still, the chefs got more than 15 minutes of fame--a lot more. Which, by American standards, is substantial.

On the other hand, the current trend can’t last forever. Meatloaf, after all, has its limitations. So do mashed potatoes. Boredom will set in. And when it does, somebody is bound to come along to rescue us from the tyranny of simple cooking. In return, we just might make him (or her) a star.


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