Celebrity chefs have long informed what we buy, how we cook and what we eat. Rachael and Nigella. Martha and Madhur. Ina and Guy. Most of these food personalities need only be introduced on a first-name basis. Such is the reach and reality of the celebrity chef.
We went from Escoffier to Julia Child inside of a century, then from Martin Yan to Samin Nosrat in less than half that. Where learning how to cook like a chef used to be reserved for actual chefs, the modern onslaught of chef-driven magazines, cookbooks, TV shows and YouTube videos ushered in an unprecedented era of accessibility.
But recently, things have started to change. There have been too many instances of sexual misconduct attributed to celebrity chefs, as well as workers’ ongoing fights for a living wage at many of their restaurants. When the pandemic hit and we were forced to eat locally, it didn’t take long to realize that a lot of our favourite chefs were actually cooking in our own backyards. As things slowly get back to normal, the pandemic has heightened our vested interest in those around-the-corner restaurants, cafés and bars so that the idea of a celebrity chef doesn’t really matter anymore.
Canada has so much homegrown talent that the appeal of an international import is waning. Over the years many celebrity chef outposts have come and failed, including Scott Conant’s Scarpetta, Wolfgang Puck’s Toronto Pearson outpost, Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian, and most recently the controversial L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the Montreal Casino, which closed this April; a high-end casualty of Montreal’s extended lockdown.
The South Beach Food & Wine Festival, hosted by the Food Network and Cooking Channel, which happened in May, garnered barely a mention in mainstream media outlets, even though Martha Stewart, Thomas Keller, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis were all in attendance. Instead of spending time and money at massive corporate-sponsored food festivals, consumers, particularly post-COVID, are more likely to support local charity-driven events, such as Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste and, also in Toronto, the Stop Community Food Centre’s Night Market, where funds raised go to good causes. There’s also now room for new voices, such as the just-announced Black Foodie Wknd, a digital campaign and event that celebrates the joy of outdoor eating and the versatility of African, Caribbean, Afro-Latinx and Southern foods. (It kicks off July 24.)
Even the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star, which ran for 14 seasons, was cancelled in 2019.
Our need to be comforted with food continues but is now being sated by people just like us. Stuck at home during quarantine, Gen Z harnessed the power of the internet and created viral videos that taught us how to make good things to eat in just a few steps. They dared us to make food from scratch, taunted us with perfect cheese pulls and showed us that it was all easier than we thought. From #pestoeggs to #bakedfetapasta, videos with the hashtag #TikTokFood have garnered more 25 billion views.
That said; a lot of TikTok recipes don’t work. Some are fakes (homemade Nerd ropes), others taste terrible (mashed potatoes made from boiled potato chips) and a few are actually dangerous (toaster steaks). But what they do exceedingly well is spark interest. And the interest created by these fun recipe hacks helped get millions of people in the kitchen to cook something for the very first time.
Instead of worshipping celebrity chefs at their kitchen altars, we’ve begun to look locally, inward and onwards. Goodbye, Mario Batali, hello, big bowls of Famiglia Baldassarre pasta at home (in Toronto). If we’ve learned anything over the past 18 months it’s that being a celebrity chef doesn’t necessarily mean restaurant success. After all, fancy branding and paying a premium can’t really compete with delicious food and treating your guests like family. At least, it can’t anymore.
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