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Celebrity chefs: Where would we be without them?

Only if you’ve had an extended stage in a remote kitchen in the depths of the Amazon jungle would you have failed to notice the media’s latest trend for criticising celebrity chefs.
You can’t have missed the snowballing controversy over Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s campaigns to improve pig and chicken welfare, which eventually saw the chefs branded as ‘patronising’ by Asda chief executive Andy Bond in trade magazine The Grocer.

Potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay has found himself the subject of a Channel 4 investigation by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, after swearing a record-breaking 313 times on Gordon’s Great British Nightmare, and Heston Blumenthal has been criticised for ‘over-reacting’ after closing his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray following a possible food poisoning incident.

Now the recently aired BBC documentary The Rise of the Superchef has depicted the likes of Ramsay, Oliver, and Anthony Worrall Thompson as puppets that are manipulated by the talent agencies and television production companies behind them.

Moulded by the media
But ironically it’s the media that’s created this notion of the celebrity chef, a branded personality behind restaurant chains, TV shows, kitchen equipment and books, which didn’t really emerge until the 1970s when Delia Smith began presenting her first cookery show, Family Fare. Since then many flamboyant chefs across the country from a young Rick Stein to a bandana-wearing James Martin, have seen a meteoric rise to fame, and they’ve taken with them the reputation of the British catering industry.

“If it weren’t for the rise of the celebrity status chefs our industry would not be as strong or as popular as it is today,” says Gary Hunter, head of Culinary Arts at Westminster Kingsway College. “They’ve helped to lift the industry and create this public window to peer into.”

The popularity of cookery shows like Saturday Kitchen that feature working chefs, has had a direct effect on a portion of its young audience who may never of previously considered a career in the kitchen. The chefs appearing in these shows present themselves as living proof that the catering industry can be fun, vibrant, and exciting, through their own personalities of a similar nature.

While a poll by Opinium Research placed Oliver as the seventh most ideal role model for children, beating Sir Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, a recent survey by revealed 90 per cent of people thought a career in the catering industry was more appealing due to the exciting nature of celebrity chefs.

Role models
In a BigHospitality survey of both third and first year students at Westminster Kingsway, 66 per cent cited a celebrity chef as their main influence for entering the industry, with Oliver and Ramsay being the most popular.

“I think it’s important for this industry to have good positive role models,” continues Hunter. “People like Marco (Pierre White) or Gordon have sweat blood and tears to get to where they’ve got today and I have the utmost respect for them."

Pessimists may argue that celebrity chefs and their constructed-for-entertainment TV shows do not portray a career in the kitchen accurately, which may in turn lead to a high drop out rate when students eventually reach the workplace. However, most of the students surveyed at Westminster were not under the impression that three years at college would make them into superstars; rather they were cynical about television’s representation of their industry.

As one Westminster third year student comments: “Television shows do glamorise real kitchens at work to make it look a lot better than it is. They give false representations and make you think you can make lots of money and fame. MasterChef is for TV; the winner thinks they can buy a restaurant straight out but last years winner couldn’t afford it. They spend two hours in a kitchen in the pressure round, which is nothing like working 10 hours a day all week.”

Representation of the industry
Hunter says students’ realistic attitude coupled with more accurate representations of the industry by the media, has helped contribute to a higher chef retention rate for the industry, which now includes 250,000 chefs and cooks, according to the Labour Force Survey.

“Within five years of our students leaving college, 80 per cent of them are still in the industry, but when I was at college, only 50 per cent of us stayed in the industry and that was nearly 20 years ago," the chef-turned-teacher reminisces.

“I feel such there is a high percentage now as we’re a lot more realistic to the needs of the industry. When I first started I didn’t have a clue about what it would be like, and when you first walked into a kitchen you got a shock because you didn’t really understand it.”

The depth of talent being inspired by celebrity chefs and trained in British kitchens has now brought British cuisine to a level it has never seen before. Industry competitions are becoming more challenging as the level of skill shown by both students and young chefs alike is reaching new heights, demonstrated by the respectable tenth place out of 24 entrants achieved by Simon Hulstone in the 2009 Bocuse D’or.

As an industry we are growing stronger, and while we may like to criticise celebrity chefs for spreading themselves too thin, becoming businessmen rather than chefs, and telling us what to do, the fact remains they have all inadvertently made our industry what it is today, a fact summed up nicely by Rise of the Superchef:

"(The Superchefs) have led the revolution that’s made good food something to be proud of and turned an embarrassment into a national treasure. Whether the fortunes of Britain’s chefs continue to rise or fall, they’ve changed our lives forever.”

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