Top Chef Season 5, Episode 4: “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”

OK, let’s start with this guy.

And here’s what Anthony Bourdain has to say about him:

Perhaps, then, they should teach the cautionary tale of Rocco DiSpirito as an example of A Chef Who Went Too Far, one who went over the line–messed with the bitch goddess celebrity and got burned. Before television, Rocco was the well-respected chef of the three-star Union Pacific, a bright, charismatic guy with the world on a string. He was known for his skill in the kitchen, his innovative style, and his insistence on quality. As he became more recognized, he began expanding his “brand”, consulting to other restaurants, signing multiple endorsement deals, showing up at openings and promo parties. Now, after his hideous, high-profile, post-ironic “reality” television venture, The Restaurant, has run its humiliating course, he’s no longer the chef of his once excellent Union Pacific; he’s banned from his own eponymous eatery (the cynical and soulless Rocco’s); he’s finally settled protracted litigation with his ex-partner, Jeffrey Chodorow and he can presently be seen hawking cookware with his mom on QVC. It’s been a long, hard, and painfully public fall. In a highly competitive business, a certain amount of backbiting and schadenfreude is to be expected. But, in Rocco’s case, the reaction from his fellow chefs has been positively gleeful.

And in case you were wondering where most of my writing style, thoughts on food, and love of commas comes from, well there you go.

The Quickfire challenge was a breakfast amuse bouche, and I am going to skip right over that, and the resulting “how many bites makes an amuse bouche into an appetizer” discussion. I think we need to figure out this first, and then move on from there.

What our sermon today will be about, is the elimination challenge: present a 3 minute demo of a dish for television. Which implies that to be a successful chef, you have to be famous. Really? Who decided that exactly? I thought we here on Top Chef were above such petty concerns, we leave that to that bastard stepchild The Next Food Network Star. Now I love the Food Network, but that show in particular lacked something for me, and not just contestants who could cook (Oh Snapskies! What? My daughter says it all the time, it must be cool.) The contestants on that show didn’t want to be chefs, they wanted to be tv stars. Only one of those is a noble calling. Here on Top Chef we take struggling cooks and catapult them into the position of their dreams!!!!

Uhm, waitaminute. Back up the Snapskie truck. A quick look at the bios shows that 11 out of the 17 contestants are either working as executive chefs, or own their own business. So what the hell are we actually doing here? We have seen more and more contestants with more and more cooking background, which is great. But if these guys are already established chefs, what do they need to be on this show for? The cash? The exposure? Has Top Chef become what all reality shows eventually become: a platform for people to get rich and famous?

But back to the original question (yes there was one), what does being a “successful” chef look like? In any artistic endevor, there will be people who “sell out”, or at least appear to to others, usually those who are less successful. Is whoring yourself out to the Today show necessary? Is it evil?

There are plenty of chefs who quietly become famous, Thomas Keller being the vanguard for that front. These are not ivory tower chefs who refuse to connect with the public. Chefs that are cooking food that they think tastes good are connecting with the public in the most honest way possible.

Then there are the teacher chefs, and God help me I’m going to mention Bobby Flay. Morimoto standing on the cutting board issue aside, his shows are popular because he teaches people that cooking is easy and fun. And you have to get behind that just a little bit. I’ll even throw Rachel Rae in this category. Yes she’s not a chef, I know that. She knows that. And the person she hires to take care of her dogs makes more money than you and I combined.

And then there is the TV personality. This has to be considered the lowest rung on the ladder, not because it takes any less skill, but because it is the least righteous. Righteous was the word I was looking for 5 paragraphs ago. Here we get into people like Rocco, who seem to have taken the easy way out, been seduced by the trappings and forgotten what they were trying to do in the first place. Cook really good food.

Being a chef is a business, and that brings all sorts of ugly realities into play. It also has a certain amount of fame required, which brings even more ugliness in. And not to sour grapes this whole bit, but that is a large part of why I am not a professional chef. The other parts being, in no particular order: not wanting to work weekends and holidays, I don’t think I could find a kitchen to work in that was set at 71 degree room temp, and I have to have my wife check to see if the meat is done or I will kill my entire family. Don’t get me wrong, part of me would love to be a chef, I mean it’s right under rock star as far as coolness goes. But I tell myself that I have the best parts of being a chef already: I get to cook food for people I love.

And as you are wiping away that small tear lest it run down your rosey cheek, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that you cannot make creme brule in an hour. You would think an executive chef would know that.

~Citizen Chef

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