Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Secrets chefs keep under their toques

Smart Money magazine this week has an amusing article by Jason Kephart, "10 things celebrity chefs won't tell you." If you want to read it in full, which will require you to view 10 separate pages with lots of animated ads, click here. But here are a summary and excerpts that will give you the gist of the story.

1. "I’m a celebrity first and a chef second."
Rachael Ray, the Babe Ruth of celebrity chefs, has ridden her culinary fame to a daytime talk show and her own magazine. Without marketing, you can’t be a celebrity chef.
2. "There’s absolutely no reason to buy my cookbook." 
This isn't exactly true. You can get more of Bobby Flay's recipes on the Food Network's recipe database than in any of his cookbooks, but will they work for the home cook? Maybe, but maybe not. If you decide to pick a recipe off the Web, be sure you know the source. When I worked for The Sacramento Bee, every recipe I included in my cookbook reviews was tested in my kitchen, and if it didn't work out the first time, I went through and tested it again. The New York Times had a story a few years ago that 60 percent of recipes in cookbooks were never tested. I'm sure the number has gone up, and they may not be as tested in newspapers, either, given the staff cuts at most print outlets.

3. "Just because I have a cooking show doesn’t mean I’m a chef." "It’s not necessary that there are professional chefs on the Food Network,’ says Anthony Bourdain, "Kitchen Confidential" author and a celebrity chef in his own right. "But what they really need are good cooks, and they have precious few of those." 
Foodies, take heart. PBS has been taking in Food Network’castoffs, including respected chefs Ming Tsai, Mario Batali, and Sara Moulton.
4. Sex sells, even with foodies. 
A growing number of chefs are making mouths water for reasons other than their culinary acumen. Actress and model Padma Lakshmi, for one, has gone from guest-starring on "Star Trek: Enterprise" to hosting the popular reality show "Top Chef."
Rachael Ray forged new ground for nonmodel chefs when she appeared in the October 2003 issue of FHM in a skimpy outfit, seductively licking chocolate off a spoon. How did other women chefs react to the sexy spread? "It didn’t hurt her career any," says Cat Cora, an FHM veteran herself, who has joined Nigella Lawson and Giada De Laurentiis in ditching traditional cooking togs for tight sweaters with plunging necklines.
5. "I’m addicted to porn - food porn, that is." It’s crucial the food look great on-screen. Food stylists ...
often shop for ingredients, prepare, and even cook the dish, all the while making sure it’s ready for its close-up.
6. "The dishes I make on TV don’t always work so great at home . . ."
Sue Gordon, a New Jersey cooking instructor, is a big fan of the Food Network. ‘I’m always looking for what they’ll teach me,’ she says. Unfortunately, when she tried to duplicate the sweet-potato gnocchi she watched Giada DeLaurentiis make on Everyday Italian, she learned the age-old lesson that looks aren’t everything. ‘It was so sticky, I had to keep adding flour,’ Gordon says. ‘The amounts were completely wrong.’ (A spokesperson for DeLaurentiis declined to comment.)
Often it’s a matter of translation. A chef might take a recipe for, say, 24 servings and divide it by four’but then fail to adjust the cooking’time properly. These slight variations can make a huge difference, according to Ellen Brown, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Substitutions. Also, home cooking and professional cooking are entirely different; even the equipment varies. ‘It’s like getting advice from a race-car driver on how to commute to work,’ Kimball says. ‘It’s two different skill sets.’
7. ‘. . . and sometimes they’re just plain gross.’ 
Take the Red Bean Beach Salad that Ingrid Hoffmann made on the beach-picnic episode of Simply Delicioso, for example. Users’ reviews on the FoodNetwork.com’s recipe board slammed the dish for its strange, unappetizing combination of beans and sweet pickles. (A spokesperson for Hoffmann declined to comment.)
8. ‘It might be my restaurant, but that doesn’t mean I cook there.’
A recent ad campaign for the city of Las Vegas used a commercial featuring Emeril Lagasse, Mario’Batali, and Wolfgang Puck, promising that in Vegas you would visit three celebrity chefs in three days. What the ad didn’t mention is that you’ve got a better chance of hitting the jackpot at keno than you do eating food that’s actually been cooked by your favorite celebrity chef at one of his many restaurants.
9. ‘My show is one long commercial for my cookbooks.’
Celebrity’chefs have a stranglehold on the bestseller list, which is proving tough to break. The top five cookbooks of 2006, and four of the top 20 in 2007, belonged to Food Network personalities, according to Simba Information, a Stamford, Conn., market research firm.
10. ‘Bottom line: My celebrity status is great for business.’
It’s a fact that a spot on TV most often translates into increased traffic to that chef's restaurant.
But as Tom Colicchio says he once told a graduating class at the Culinary Institute of America, ‘If you got into this business to be the next Emeril, you should apologize to your parents for wasting their money.’

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