Young chefs, take heed: reality television offers you two glimpses, this summer season, of chefs who have fallen so far off their pedestals it’s difficult to believe they were ever taken seriously. Rocco DiSpirito’s visit to Top Chef Season III was thankfully limited to one episode, but there he was shilling for Bertolli, his face strangely waxen, maybe from all that cat food he’s testing? His dress, his face, his hair, his voice, are all so presentational you can see the crux of his career crisis right there in his pixelated visage: he’s too in love with his own image to stay in the kitchen. The kitchen is for the Howies of the world and Rocco wants the limelight. Only that limelight will fade, as it always does, and then what? “All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my Bertolli frozen pasta dinner”?
Yet Rocco’s disgrace is tame next to that of Gordon Ramsay. How can a man who held three Michelin stars appear on a show where the two finalists–the supposedly BEST chefs from the entire season–serve a three course meal that would embarrass the lowest chef at a T.G.I. Friday’s? Did anyone see this? I mean, I don’t watch Hell’s Kitchen, we were desperate tonight so we watched the finale and it was shocking. The food was so sub-par that the fact that anyone could believe that these “winners” are the best at anything, let alone cooking, is deeply disturbing. In particular, the blonde woman’s food (I forget her name) was laughably bad: her signature pasta with shrimp looked like it came out of The Idiot’s Guide To Olive Garden Cooking. And her dessert? A chocolate covered strawberry and some cookies. I’m not kidding. This show has as much to do with fine dining as “America’s Top Model” has to do with brain surgery.
And yet, “Hell’s Kitchen” does do something that “Top Chef” doesn’t: it tries to recreate the dynamic of a “real” restaurant kitchen. Sure, “Top Chef” does that in the finale, but that’s what “Hell’s Kitchen” does all season and it showcases how social skills and leadership skills are so essential behind the scenes. And that’s about all the praise I can muster for the show.
Back to Chef Ramsay. Look, money talks, I’m not an idiot. He must be paid up the wazoo for his volatile personality, his mad-dog antics, his showboating sadism. But at what cost? And the same goes for Rocco. What’s your price, young chefs of America? At what point are you willing to become a corporate shill, like Rocco, or a fuming cartoon character like Ramsay? If fame and fortune in the food world are what you seek and you want to maintain your integrity, there’s only one model you should follow and that’s the Anthony Bourdain model. I’m not sure how he does it, but he traverses the world of popular entertainment and the cultish world of foodiedom with ease. One day he’s on “Top Chef,” the next he’s writing on eGullet. Study his example, young chefs of today, and avoid the pitfalls that were so depressingly demonstrated this summer on TV. Now I have to shower for 12 hours to get the stank of “Hell’s Kitchen” out of my hair.