Gordon Ramsey, Christina Wilson arriving at the Grand opening of Gordon Ramsey Hells Kitchen at Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino

Celebrity chef culture was getting out of control. Then the pandemic hit

With the crisis shutting down most restaurants, I suspect that many chefs are using this downtime to figure out what cooking is all about
June 8, 2020

Being a chef used to be so easy, didn’t it? All you needed to do was put on an oversized white hat, do some cooking, say “oui” a lot, and that was it. You were a chef. And then suddenly it wasn’t so simple. A tyre company started handing out stars to prize restaurants. There were awards, cookery shows and international conferences. People started calling you a rock star and you started behaving like one. The media began to call you “gods of food;” cooking, as the new MasterChef asserted, didn’t get “any tougher than this.” Supermarkets asked you to put your name to ready meals. You started to suspect that it was all getting A. Bit. Too. Much.

Perhaps you can trace the rot back to Georges Auguste Escoffier, the legendary chef known as the father of 20th-century cookery. Escoffier codified the rules of the kitchen and whipped it into shape, setting in an unquestioned chain of command from the chef de cuisine to the plongeur. He called this hierarchy brigade de cuisine. The military association was very much intentional—it ensured discipline. As Major Colvin said in HBO’s The Wire, “You call something a war and pretty soon everyone’s gonna be running around acting like warriors.” Cooking has always been difficult work, but somewhere along the way the hardship got fetishised.

With the crisis shutting down most restaurants, I suspect that many chefs are using this downtime to figure out what cooking is all about, and what really got them interested in it in the first place. What does it mean to cook for someone? I’ve heard many answers, but the best was given a few years ago by Olivier Roellinger, the Breton chef who in his pomp held three Michelin stars. Roellinger came to cooking after being brutally attacked by a gang at 21 and spending two years recuperating at home, enjoying meals from his mother. When asked about the essence of cooking, Roellinger described a mother scooping plain rice into a child’s mouth. For him, a chef, no matter how lofty, must always bear this image in mind. It is their job to nourish the customer and make them happy. It’s no coincidence that Roellinger later renounced all his stars and gave up professional cooking.

This type of cooking goes on in less celebrated kitchens already: domestic ones, of course, but also in care homes, in community kitchens, and by furloughed chefs who might currently be cooking for the NHS. Food writer and chef Ruby Tandoh calls these zones “blurred spaces where some of the knottiest issues in our food systems are worked out.” At their best, they put the chef and consumer on equal footing. They create a back-and-forth dialogue that acknowledges the needs of the eater and asks the chef to keep their ego in check.

It is these spaces that chefs should now learn from. The virus poses an existential threat to restaurants but it does offer chefs some time to work out what actually brings them happiness and a chance to respond to what their community needs, not what they think may bring accolades. This means being more transparent and making food that isn’t inherently wasteful. It means promoting connections with local suppliers, making more things that can be taken to be prepared at home, and streamlining a menu that doesn’t just make money but also pays staff more—to make the whole system sustainable in sum. Cooking once more has to be seen as an interconnected process that encompasses producers, butchers, bakers, waiters, the environment and whole communities, rather than a rarefied art of one genius.

In 2008, when the financial crash hit, we said restaurants wouldn’t be the same again. For a while they weren’t, but they quickly relapsed. Ballooning rents and the rise of private equity pushed more chefs into the restaurant rat race to survive. Now, the slump is deeper, and with social distancing the fight to survive feels all the more intense. The realist in me thinks the same will happen again, that if restaurants get through this, consumers will soon forget the pandemic’s lessons and restaurateurs will once again be forced to chase stars and fame. But if I’m wrong, then maybe the golden age of restaurants isn’t over. Maybe it’s yet to come.