Sunday, April 26, 2009

Celebrity Chef Absenteeism Syndrome

In the three weeks I spent at the Fat Duck, I only saw Heston Blumenthal once, and it got me thinking about the whole celebrity chef phenomenon. I knew it was him because of the gleaming BMW M5 parked among the sorry-looking collection of clapped-out cars and rusty bicycles his chefs used to travel back and forth from their endless, sweat and strain shifts.

But any hopes of the culinary genius coming in to shake our hands and thank us for working for free in his restaurant were soon dashed. The closest he got to the prep room was talking on his mobile on the stairs as he took a quick break from filming in the lab.

His human resources manager had explained to me when I started that Heston wouldn’t actually be doing any kitchen work. He had a bad back. I wondered how many of his chefs suffered the same ailment, given the long hours and daily gruel, and I wondered whether he felt guilty knowing his old comrades were working in the cramped inferno, churning out meals in his absence, as he swanned round in five-star hotels on the rubber chicken circuit.

It reminded me of that scene in the Life of Brian when the hapless terrorists - led by John Cleese’s Reg (I’ll call him Heston) - plan a raid on Pilate’s palace...

VOICE-OVER: Heston, our glorious leader and founder of the FD, will be co-ordinating consultant, though he himself will not be taking part in any cheffing action, as he has a bad back.

BRIAN: Aren't you going to come with us?

HESTON: Solidarity, brother.

BRIAN: Oh, yes. Solidarity, Heston.

And it also got me thinking about celebrity chef absenteeism syndrome (CCAS) – a pandemic sweeping the restaurant scene, and probably best illustrated by Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant dropping out of the list of the world's top 100 restaurants having been in 13th place the year before.

I have heard the arguments and listened to the musings, but it still sits uneasily with me. In my view, there is something fake and plastic about a celebrity chef who trades off his name, but is never behind the stove. I got a whiff of it when I did my week at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant – but at least Stein had done his time, and was too old to absorb the stresses and strains of daily kitchen toil.

I know the arguments from the ‘so what?’ brigade and the poison peddled by celebrity chefs’ PRs. Their client has trained a skilled, loyal team who can execute his famed dishes in his absence so allowing him to ensconce himself on breakfast TV sofas, promoting his image, and ensuring a steady stream of bums on seats. And besides that, the money’s good – much better than running a restaurant anyway.

I have heard the incredulity from chest-puffing, pompous food critics (are there any other kinds?) levelled at anyone who has the temerity to question why the great chef is not actually cooking their meal himself. You wouldn’t expect Colonel Sanders to fry your chicken, or Ronald McDonald to flip your burger, would you? And Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal et al are just brand names after all...

But I have never quite understood this argument. Sure, Leonardo da Vinci might have had an army of skilled painters doing his canvases, but he still turned up to add the last few brush-strokes, or at least sign his name.

I believe that in any art form or creative process, there are a handful of supernaturally-talented people who possess a level of skill that can’t be taught, and a talent that we mortals will never attain. It is a gift that allowed chefs like Ramsay and Blumenthal to rise above the rank and file, and make their names in food history. It is this talent and creativity that propelled their restaurants to fame, and although it is possible to train up brilliant chefs to cover in their absence, it does not mimic their talent entirely.

Motivation alone is a strong factor, especially given the ludicrously long hours and crap pay. In short, a ghost writer does not put the same level of soul and love into a piece as a writer publishing under his own byline. And it is the same for Ramsay’s chefs. Why do you think his former protégé Marcus Wareing, whose Berkeley Hotel restaurant won a ‘breakthrough’ award and was placed 52nd in the top 100 list, was so keen to leave the fold and emerge blinking in the spotlight from his master’s shadow?

“I’m now knocking on the door and it’s a great privilege,” he said after ousting his old boss. “I hope it’s because people are now seeing me as an individual chef. The restaurant is starting to feel like one with a patron in the kitchen. It has got a sense of place and I believe every great restaurant has to have a heartbeat and a soul.”

And what about creativity? Faithfully churning out the same dishes year after year is surely a killer for any restaurant. Where do the new dishes come from?

Talking of which, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck once again managed to hold on to the number two slot despite being shut for weeks over a suspected norovirus outbreak (at the awards dinner, compere Mark Durden-Smith suggested a way for Blumenthal to topple El Bulli from the top spot, joking: “Perhaps taking some of his mysterious bugs to Spain is the only way to knock the No 1 off its perch.”)

But despite rarely cooking in his cramped kitchen, I think Blumenthal’s continued success rests largely on the fact he has not overstretched himself. He has a team who have been with him for years, and only has the Fat Duck and the Hind’s Head gastropub next door to worry about – although I have heard he is planning to open his first London restaurant, possibly at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Silly boy. Doesn’t he read the papers?

The same goes for Rick Stein – who I only saw once during my week at his Seafood Restaurant – and then he only popped in to taste a few trial dishes (he didn’t like his executive chef’s Marco-esque pig’s trotters stuffed with lemon sole mousse. But who could blame him? It was far too cheffy, and hardly in keeping with Stein’s brand of home-spun simplicity.)

But again, the famous seafood cook might have his Padstein empire - which has just been added to with a pub in St Merryn (Stein Merryn perhaps in a couple of years?) - but it’s all contained in a small area of Cornwall and therefore far more easily run.

Yet it’s the complete opposite with Ramsay. He has been so busy trying to conquer the world, cloning himself in Hollywood, Dubai and Paris, among other places, that like Alexander the Great, he has failed to see his empire crumbling behind him.

And that is why his flagship Chelsea restaurant no longer makes even the top 100 - and why he has dropped out of the top 2,000 in this weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List after last year being valued at £50m in 1,446 position.

It is, say his many rivals and enemies, because the great chef is no longer behind the stove. Wareing was quick to put the knife in, suggesting that Ramsay's focus on forging an international television career and business empire had cost him his place in the 2009 San Pellegrino world restaurant rankings.

“In today's world a chef is only going to be successful if he's in the kitchen. People want more than a name,” he said.

But he stressed it was bums on seats that mattered, and Ramsay’s restaurants were still well supported. His former mentor, he confidently predicted, would be back. “I can guarantee that – I know that more than anyone,” he said. Was that the glint of a fearful look in his eye?

Indeed initial reports of explosions and seismic tremors in London this week were put down to Ramsay being spotted in his chef's whites visiting staff at Claridge's (which has reportedly suffered from a mouse and cockroach problem – since rectified) and his restaurant in Royal Hospital Road. Was he giving staff his own nose-clamped, glugging dose of Kitchen Nightmares medicine?

Given his expulsion from the Rich List, and how his company was last month forced to renegotiate a multi-million-pound loan after breaching banking covenants, he could perhaps start with the costs.

Clare Smyth, head chef at his flagship restaurant, caused consternation this week when she appeared on Great British Menu (hang on, another chef away from the stove?) She was given the task of frying monkfish at her fellow contestant Danny Millar’s gastropub in Northern Ireland, but soon got into trouble when she had to scrape the fish off the bottom of the pan.

“It’s not what I’m used to,” she bleated afterwards. “I’ve got brand spanking new non-stick frying pans...which we throw away each week.”

Chucking away pans after only a week? Not sure they were the only things being thrown around this week. Oh to have been a (now rectified) cockroach on the wall...

:: Got an opinion on this...please spare a moment and leave a comment below, go on - it'd be nice to hear from you...


Sarah J said...

Another great blog Lennie. makes me LOL as alwys, S

thedrb said...

I too was shocked at Ms Smyth's claim that Danny's pans were too old! I was led to believe that a solid frying pan, loved and cared for, would help produce fantastic food for longer than 1 week! And she has a fine set of gnashers! Can't wait for 'Sarge' to step into the limelight, he at least has a reasonable set of gums on him.

Lennie Nash said...


Yes, a fine set of gnashers indeed. Completely agree - whatever happened to that expression 'the blacker the wok the better the chef', or doesn't it include Michelin star chefs?

Douglas Blyde said...

I'm surprised TFD didn't make you sign a confidentiality form (GRH do). Yours is a fascinating blog, by the way.

Mark said...

Great blog, Lennie. I'm intrigued by the quesion of whether or not a chef should be pilloried for not being in the kitchen. I think the problems arise when you put your name over the door - "Fred Bloggs at the Imperial Hotel". It seems to me there's a lot to admire in chefs who train, retain and succession-plan well enough to attain stars at multiple sites. Try to claim that you actually cook at all your restaurants, though, and you'll get into hot water. The public aren't stupid - are we expected to believe that the Ramsays, Ducasses and Robuchons make like Phil Collins at Live Aid and dash across continents to display their skills? BTW let's remember Hospital Road still had three Michelin stars last time I looked ...

Nicky said...

I feel that HB and GR want to use the kitchen as a stepping stone to overcoming their own internal demons. They seem driven, but not entirely by the love of food, more by the need to achieve. Also gobsmacked by Clare and the pans - my husband and I looked at each other in disbelief and mouthed "What??!!" - tv gold :o)

MsMarmitelover said...

Yours is my favourite food blog Lennie. Brilliant pacey writing.
It's as if these chefs couldn't wait to get out of the is hard work, long hours etc

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks Douglas.

They did make me sign a confidentiality form at the Fat Duck, but it was made out of edible paper, so I ate my words. Went for job interview at Gordon Ramsay empire, and they made me sign one too - just for an interview!

Like your blog by the way!


Lennie Nash said...

Interesting stuff Mark!

Love the reference to Phil Collins at Live Aid.

Chef Aid, now that's an idea... Jamie Oliver doing a green curry demonstration at Wembley. Or worse drumming in his band. Maybe not.

Take your point about Hospital Road and its three Michelin stars.


Lennie Nash said...

Hi Nicky,

Couldn't agree more. It was TV gold wasn't it!

All the best


Lennie Nash said...

Gulp! Cheers MsMarmitelover.


Melinda said...

I don't begrudge any of the top celeb chefs promoting themselves or branching out a bit.
I should think the people of Padstow should put Rick up for a knighthood. He has put them on the map and employing locals. And his restaurant/hotel was excellent when I stayed and ate there. I think if they do complain about him, the complaint should be a very well measured complaint.
Gordon Ramsay has put his neck out a bit too far on the chopping block. He is easy bait for all those other restaurants waiting to knock him off and the many he has offended. (whether he was right or wrong)
Now I can't say a word against my beloved Gary Rhodes. He did my wedding dinner just before he hit the big time. He was simply wonderful and my hero forever.
AWT and Marco Pierre White set up gastro-pubs in the village I live in and one near by. They were both dreadful, and went out of business. I don't feel bad about that. I think to put their names to those pubs was misrepresentation.
I hope Heston doesn't regret opening up in London. I liked the small is beautiful concept. It feels very special to go to Bray for the number 2 restaurant in the world!

I am so glad you and all the other comments picked up on Clare's pan throwing out after a week. I will be hanging out by their rubbish pile.
She was robbed in my opinion. Her dishes looked wonderful. Her teeth didn't spoil it for me at all!

Sorry this comment is so long. I just love reading what you have to say. I feel like chatting back! Cheers

Lennie Nash said...

Hi Melinda,

Great comment. Tell us more about Gary Rhodes doing your wedding. Have you blogged about it before?

Quite agree about AWT and Marco Pierre White's gastropubs - you must be in Berkshire, right? Novelli was another one who went down that route with disastrous consequences. None of them spent any time at their ventures.

Yes, I wonder where Clare throws those pans, lucky binmen.

All the best


Kate said...

Great writing again, Lennie :-) I can't help but think that it's a combination of chef absenteeism and their PR folk that distances these client-celebrity-chefs from the public, you know. Have you ever tried to get in touch with one, to actually speak person-to-person with one? (okay, rhetorical question - I know you have, of course ;-) ) ... the point is though, it's bloody difficult to get past the brick wall that is their personal assistant. It's almost as difficult as trying to get a doctor's appointment in a seaside retirement resort (I speak from personal experience on that one - the receptionists fiercely defended their GPs from even the merest whiff of a general public).

Kavey said...

Another fine post!

I'm always in two minds about this question.

Whilst I agree that only a small percentage of chefs have that truly special something that allows them to create the wonders that put them at the top of the world foodie lists. On the other hand, I believe much of their skill lies in creativity and menu design and understanding what their customers want and how they will react. Those skills may not be easily transferable to the chefs' teams. But they don't need to be. The skills of recreating exactly a dish as designed by the creative genius is surely something that can be taught? Hence, I don't find it a problem for a chef not to be cooking in his own establishment all the time.

BUT I do think he should cook there on a regular basis. Exactly how often, I don't know. Surely a chef who _never_ cooks at his own establishment loses that intimate knowledge of his kitchen and staff, and doesn't have the same bond to the place?

Jane Wightman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane Wightman said...

Well for me it's just plain, good old fashioned business sense.
For your business to survive and thrive you have to be at the helm and keep an eagle eye on those purportedly 'doing your bidding'.
If you aren't at the coal-face, how on earth can you expect to maintain your game and give the customers what they expect?
Methinks that the sleb chefs have forgotten their mantra - to be the best and serve their customers well.
That said, I also think that the customers expectations are far below what they would even tolerate in the local cafe, simply because they believe they are in the presence of greatness...
So both parties are deluded. Yet both smugly satisified. Go figure!
And both, inevitably, lose out.

But then, perhaps the likes of GR, HB, AWT, MPW et al, are really just media tarts - ready and willing to 'perform' on camera, for an astronomical price given, but hey even Judas had his price! In all fairness, itt's a bloody sight easier than heading a top kitchen that's for sure, which they have, to their credit, done and done well, albeit past tense.

Perhaps they're just getting too old and comfortable & enjoying their sleb status just a little too much.

Jane Wightman said...

Just had another thought - sleb chefs attract slebs... who wouldn't realistically know (or care) what they're eating... it's the BEING SEEN thing.
Reminds me of an old adage my Nana used to say - like giving (feeding) pearls to swine... somehow appropriate.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of thing I try to teach people. Can we count on a sequel?

Anonymous said...

This guy is really lucky !

Chef Shane said...

Another cracker of a post Lennie.
And....I have to agree what Jane Wightman said!
Slebs + slebs = matrix-style contentment for all involved.