Up With People
What a strange beast Drew Magary’s recent article, ‘Down with Chef Worship’ is. What insecurity it reveals in its bristling profanity and wilful anti-intellectualism; what interesting points it raises and then ignores entirely, ploughing off in search of yet lower common denominators. What a wasted opportunity it therefore represents.
Magary is right about so much. He is right that high-end cooking is an exclusive world leery of strangers; he is right that the personal narratives / mythologies behind every chef are more prominent now than ever before. He is right in his description of how chefs are feted like tech bros; he is right in encouraging a healthy scepticism towards them.
He is wrong in every other conceivable way, including how he deploys the stuff he’s right about.
At least, I think he is. I don’t actually know what he’s trying to say. Is it:
1. We should stop worshipping chefs because at the high end it’s an industry that spares no thought nor gives any access to ordinary folk like you and me; or
2. We should stop worshipping chefs because it is silly to venerate people who are morons who can cook good; or
3. We should stop worshipping chefs because it is silly to venerate people who are assholes; or
4. We should stop worshipping chefs because it allows frauds to slip bad food under the radar; or
5. We should stop worshipping chefs as creative forces because restaurants are a business first and foremost, and part of that business means that the real art is in the hustle; or
6. We should stop worshipping chefs, because not every one of them is a genius; or
7. We should stop worshipping chefs, but only the ones who are bizarrely determined to not give everyone a chance to try their best food; or
8. We should stop worshipping chefs because it’s in service of a pursuit that can be awfully superficial; or
9. We should stop worshipping chefs because no one cured cancer perfecting an uni custard?
It’s a noisy, distracting set of options; the cumulative effect is not crushing (as, I think, intended), but distracting – I genuinely don’t know which of these is the central contention. Magary has gone so scattergun – prioritised breadth over depth – that you can pick apart pretty much all of these points:
1. Yes, absolutely, as I was just remarking to my close friends Leonardo DiCaprio and Ralph Lauren during our weekly BBQ round at the Kardashians’, as our other good friend Beyoncé did an acapella performance of ‘Drunk in Love’.
2. Yes absolutely, as I was saying to the entirety of Stamford Bridge as they celebrated a rare goal by John Terry
3. Yes absolutely, as I was saying to the entirety of Stamford Bridge as they celebrated a rare goal by John Terry
5. So we’re wrong to idolise the creative ones but would be justified in admiring someone who crushed his Gross Margin on a weekly basis? Live the dream, kids!
6. So we accept that some of them are geniuses? And therefore worthy of veneration? And that the title should therefore be ‘Down With Worshipping People Who Are Bad At Their Job; Up With Worshipping People Who Are Good At Their Job’? And that it only isn’t given that (more accurate) title because sensationalism is the name of the game with clickbait like this; the heat of the take is entirely in step with how many times it gets shared on social media? And that, actually, this whole piece suggests a similarly nuanced conversation that Magary is probably capable of having, only he has instead gone full Usain Bolt in the race to the bottom? Cool, cool. Just checking.
7. [Helen Rosner covered this one already]
8. Yes, let’s stop investing in things in which highly skilled people put on a unique, fleeting performance for paying customers. About bloody time. It never worked for Hamilton, either.
9. Yes, and we should stop worshipping life-saving oncologists because they’re never working to raise the profile of the conversation about sustainable food or food deserts or the role of food in a future without meat. Plus, their custard is always splitting, the amateurs.
By all means, it would be great if we chose as our role models people who were virtuous, pious, not assholes (I say that – would it, though?). But as any list of the most feted people in history would illustrate, at some point our veneration shifted away from saintly religious icons and uncomplicatedly Good Men, and towards something a bit more variegated, something that plays back our own imperfections to us. To decry our chef-worship is to decry the way we worship in general, these days – write off chefs and you may as well write off everyone we consider worthy of our attention.
I welcome the fact we are now giving more of that attention to chefs. I think Magary and I would agree that the manner in which we venerate them still needs some consideration – I, too, despise the genuinely exclusionary gendered celebration of chef-bros, the Bourdain-inflected militaristic, alpha-male supremacist vocabulary in which it is couched – but it’s a start. It’s a sign that we are starting to think of chefs as people who do more than just apply salt, acid and / or heat to ingredients; that they contribute something to society that transcends the stuff a waiter plonks in front of you.
And of course it’s not a cure for cancer, but Michaelangelo didn’t do much on that front either – neither did Bach, or Shakespeare. And – yes – you can argue that those artists have produced artefacts that have endured, in that people still talk about them. But the reason people still talk about them is that they have brought their mastery to bear and produced something that has enriched people’s lives, and if you want to get into a heap of sorites paradox trouble about quite how much they’ve enriched people’s lives (as opposed to chefs) I’ll warn you it’s an agonisingly boring route and ultimately entirely dissatisfying one to go down. I’m happy to acknowledge that a chef may never produce a Shakespeare-level masterpiece – I don’t even possess the critical vocabulary or imagination to conceive of what that would look like. I’ll willingly accept, too, that not all chefs produce Art – but only if you accept that not all self-professed artists do, either. Sometimes it’s just people doing something they’re good at and which other people are happy enough to hand over money for – skills to quite literally pay the bills – but that doesn’t mean that some members of the population aren’t capable of doing something more rarefied, and that the population as a whole should be excluded as a result.
Magary’s myopia is laid most obviously bare in his hilariously inept choice of Bill Buford’s Heat as the slam-dunk proof that he is “right” that restaurants are just a business, that chefs are just boring talentless drones, unworthy of our interest. For one thing, it’s a 300 page-plus hagiography of multiple chefs (Mario Batali, Jeremiah Tower, Marco Pierre White), so – you know, oops. But for another, the whole source of Buford’s fascination – in Batali, in kitchen culture, in cooking and eating and drinking and talking and thinking and the whole business (commercial and intellectual) of food – is how slippery it is as subject matter. It is high and low, quotidian and transcendent.
To some, food is sex, be it stereotypically virile – Gordon Ramsay is quoted describing high-stakes cooking as an erection dusted with Viagra – or a subtler sort of seduction (one section opens with an excerpt from Jonathan Reynolds’ Dinner with Demons that is dazzlingly, breathlessly erotic). The book starts with food as the very epitome of hospitality and friendship, Mario Batali bowling into a dinner party with armfuls of wine and a block of lardo, which he then slices very thinly and places onto the other attendees’ tongues. The book closes on an anguished Dario Cecchini flailing against the dying of the light, the growing bastardisation of the food of his beloved Tuscany, symbolic of a commercialism that is paradoxically in opposition to and indistinguishable from the kitchen economics illustrated in the Batali quotation that Magary pulls. Buford’s thesis is simple: food can be anything to anyone; or, put another way: food is everything.
And so to dismiss the central mediating figure between something that grows in the sea or on or under the ground and something you put in your mouth is to dismiss something a bit more fundamental. In dismissing chef worship, you’re dismissing curiosity in others and their drive towards mastery; you’re dismissing our willingness to explore ourselves at our worst as well as our best. You’re dismissing our irrationality – I’m sure some of these guys really are dicks – but also the role that irrationality plays in enlivening and broadening the sphere of our interests. You’re dismissing the very idea that some people can be gifted enough to do things provocative enough that they will fundamentally change the quality of other people’s lives. You’re dismissing pure pleasure, and subsequent reflection on that pleasure, and the role that both play in lives that would otherwise feel like a grinding slog to the grave. You’re dismissing, really, what it means to be human in the first place.
So. Who’s the asshole now?