Sunday, January 22, 2017

Death of the Celebrity Chef

It may be that I am writing on a topic already long gone past, but the celebrity chef is dead.

I don't mean the Emerils, the Fieris, but instead the Boweins, the Changs, the Rickers. Around 2011, when the celebrity hipster chef was in full force, it was this beautiful combination of ethnic food and English-speaking, classically trained chefs who could translate Asian (or otherwise) food for a Caucasian palate. I was completely obsessed, buying the Momofuku Cookbook, the Mission Chinese Cookbook, among others. They were like rock stars on Vice TV's Munchies channel or on the pages of Lucky Peach. It was so enchanting.

And now, those restaurants have lost their charm, and perhaps their purpose. On a recent and much-planned culinary trip to New York, I got to encounter the actual restaurants that made the foodie movement of the 2010s, and the results were unimpressive and underwhelming. The dishes, now having been served the same way for years, have lost their appeal, urgency, or novelty. The pork buns at Momofuku Ssam were whatever. The restaurant was less than a quarter full, which was disappointing in itself when I had always imagined it with a line down the block. Even the newer upstarts, like Black Seed Bagels (of the Mile End Deli restaurant group), a Jewish ethnic rediscovery project, was downright bad. The bagels were underrisen and borderline inedible - it was like eating roughage. The trip perfectly mapped our gastronomical moment of having gone from foodie-ism to fatigue. The celebrity chef is no longer in the building, he or she is on Snapchat.

My resolution from the trip was that for future food pilgrimages, I would skip the celebrity chefs, the contrived food that was backed by a good PR team, and instead head for authentic restaurants only. My best meal all trip might have been a $3.00 foil-wrapped jalapeno and cheese tamale that came out of a steam basket underneath a bar at 2AM in a dive in Leffert's Gardens.

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