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Stop Chef

Enough celebrity and cooking-as-fashion—can we slow down for a moment to savor the simple joy and comfort of food?

By Maren Tarro

I can trace the beginnings of my love affair with all things gastronomic to a very young age. I was an Army brat living in Germany with only one TV channel in English: AFN, the Armed Forces Network. Mixed in with old sitcom reruns and soap operas was the occasional PBS cooking show.

I would sit, transfixed, as Julia Child beat a defenseless chicken into submission with her rolling pin. Martin Yan hypnotized me with his surreal knife skills. Although I was unaware of how powerful food could be, I knew there was something magical to it.

Every time the characters in the books I read dined on beef Wellington I wondered, “Why aren’t we eating whatever that is?” I spent about three years trying to figure out how to pronounce foie gras and the next 10 daydreaming about what it tasted like.

My first real job was in a candy store, where I learned about chocolate’s fickle temperament. I spent hours creating dipped fruits, barks and, yes, white chocolate-covered dog bones. Soon after, I trekked across the United States to attend culinary school.

I loved being in the kitchen while my instructor screamed “86 it!” every time my dish was not to her liking. Having an old, fat, bitter woman rip my self-esteem to shreds because she could still see whites and yolks in my omelet was an enlightening experience. I killed in the kitchen. Within a couple of months, I knew my way around a range the way a serial killer knows his way around a dark alley.

And then I was booted out for beating up some tramp in my dorm.

This did not end my food career. I floated from restaurant to restaurant trying to find where I fit in the industry. For a while it looked like the back of the house, snorting drugs with the line cooks. When I sobered up, I focused on writing about good eats and, well, here I am.

Between my afternoons spent watching Mrs. Child and where I am now, a few things have changed in the culinary world. The Food Network has given us a new breed of celebrity chefs—bobbleheads who seem to spend more time slapping their names on crappy products than actually cooking. As a result, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a cable subscription thinks he’s a chef. Food writers have moved away from flowery descriptions of food to manly play-by-plays of how the food got from the slaughterhouse to your table. And the whiskey tango crowd is convinced Rachael Ray really can deliver a moveable feast in less than half an hour. Mexican lasagna, anyone?

The larder is no longer a temple of sustenance and love but a coliseum of blood, guts and keeping score. Food, like nearly everything else in our culture, has become sport.

Chefs now pit themselves against one another to see “whose cuisine will reign supreme” and various personalities attempt to outdo each other in the game of who can eat the grossest crap on the planet.

The celebrity food industry undeniably has introduced the average Joe to haute cuisine and livened up the dinner tables of us all, but I fear something has been lost in the process.

In exploring every corner of cultural grub, we’re losing sight of the purpose and power of the provisions afforded us. We race to chow down on the latest creations and shell out enormous sums of dough, just for the fashion of it all. Anthony Bourdain eats dumplings from street carts in Beijing? Then I will, too. Gordon Ramsey has a coronary over broken sauces? So do I!

But the connections between the land and people are disappearing. Simply enjoying a meal, lovingly prepared, is passé. The fusion trend of the ’80s went much further than combining cuisines; it seeped into the reasons we eat. And these days, we eat to keep up with the Joneses.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful I’m not the only one excited about winter truffle season approaching. But I can’t help but notice how little we stop to smell the truffles—to reflect on peasants who once ate them as often as potatoes. I’m saddened that, more than ever, food has become a status symbol. Perhaps between mouthfuls of the latest and greatest plat du jour, we can pause. For just a moment, we can chew on the history of this stuff that sustains us while simultaneously bringing us joy.

Maren Tarro is an Editorial Intern at the Weekly Alibi in Sante Fe, N.M., where this article first appeared.

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