The “Changian” Revolution

Years ago, when I was but an infant in my research into why people suddenly gave a shit about chefs (with due respect to a chef I give most respect to: yes, I’m talking about the late, great Bourdain) – and by giving a shit I mean turned them into celebrities – I experienced something which pissed me off mightily, but which I now file in the (virtual) cupboard of naivety when it comes to online behaviour.

In brief, I had the gumption to delve into the comment section of a blog post I had an issue with, and which unfortunately got personal when someone decided to look me up and discovered that I was researching something called “food media”: ‘wot dat?‘ was among the commentary.

Well, I knew it was a thing then, and a decade later, I can confidently say that it is (still) a ‘thing’ now.

A recent profile of David Chang in the Washington Post tells us pretty much all we need to know about the peculiar fetishisation of chefs, restaurants, and food in 2019 (at Chang’s Momofuku Ko, you can have a lunch-time burger for the relatively sweet price of $9 – or add a $10 foie gras supplement).

Why a profile of a chef in the WaPo? Why a feature of René Redzepi in the Financial Times (sorry, paywall)? Why do people give a shit about Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay? If it’s about the food, why didn’t they care as much about the late, great Keith Floyd, who at least made failing at food cool?

The answer, obviously, is that “it’s complicated”. I started my research because I thought the whole thing was kind of ridiculous – as it indeed was when teenage girls and their mothers were screaming for Jamie Oliver’s autograph at his first live performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2001. After a couple of years, I developed a nutshell “thesis” – the kind good for answering questions as quickly as possible once someone hears you’re doing a PhD on celebrity chefs at a party or whatever (“Wow! So cool! So, why is it?”): it was the dawn of the media bombardment of messages about how we’re making ourselves sick and obese by eating all the wrong things, not knowing how to cook, etc., so by knowing how to make “good” food, chefs became the “natural” authorities on how to live (and then they mistakenly came to believe they were authorities on everything).

I still think there’s merit to that. But the whole enterprise has reached another level of importance – and ridiculousness – that I couldn’t have predicted. Their reach is so outlandish now that it’s difficult to remain as cynical as I was when started out (though I keep trying). We’re no longer just talking about the so-called “Delia effect” of supermarkets running out of cranberries before Christmas. The “Changian Revolution” runs far deeper than that:

If you’ve ever eaten pork buns, or fried Brussels sprouts with fish sauce — maybe you didn’t know they had fish sauce? — that is David Chang. If you’ve had ramen in a smaller city, circa 2014, that’s David Chang. If you’ve heard Notorious B.I.G. or LCD Soundsystem in a restaurant. If you’ve sat before an open kitchen, in a place with a minimalist, plywood aesthetic. If your neighborhood has a restaurant started by a young chef with an attitude, and an eclectic menu of whatever the hell he feels like cooking, all of those things are David Chang.

“Ramen, Noise and Rebellion”, The Washington Post, 19 September 2019.

So in the world of branding, celebrity chefs have certainly become “influencers” (cue copycats the world over). But these days, it’s also not all about success. Bourdain’s suicide was just one of the awful events that disrupted the glamour of the “celebrated”, opening conversations about mental health in the hospitality industry. Long a darling of the food media industry, Mario Batali’s fall from grace galvanised a deep and troubling, but long overdue, look into sexual harassment in the workplace. The recent failure of Jamie Oliver’s British restaurant empire highlighted the limitations to what a cocky young chap who’s great with a pestle and mortar, but rubbish in the business-savvy department, can do.

They have now become icons of corporate success, and failure. Of demonstrating that having the best job in the world is not enough to quiet the demons that may haunt you. Of exposing the disgusting liberties some people think fame affords them, and all the inequities that should be far behind us by now.

That’s not to say it’s all gone to shit. Thanks to the increased transparency we now have access to, players at the forefront of food media are probably more honest than they ever have been, because accountability is thankfully becoming as required in the industry as dexterity with a pestle and mortar.

Now we just need journalists to get with the game and stop their fawning. The FT piece on René Redzepi, for example, claims that ‘Noma is the mothership of culinary endeavour’. Please. That distinction should be reserved for whoever came up with cacio e pepe.