The cult of food and celebrity chefs

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once our necessities are satisfied we want more. This is certainly true when it comes to food.

In the undeveloped world, people are often struggling with abject poverty and live day to day in a battle to feed themselves or their families. What food they do have access to rarely gives them the proper nutrition necessary to live full and healthy lives. As we move up the development ladder to the developing world, food is easier to come by but meals are still fairly basic, people shop cheaply at markets, and fast food and eating out is a luxury. At the top of the ladder in our first world countries, we waste 4 million tonnes of food every year in Australia*, there is so much food choice that we can be fussy about what we will and will not eat, and some people will eat out for every meal.

Now that food is something that we First Worlders don’t have to worry about, we have become gluttonous in our obsession with the cult of food. There are countless cooking and foodie television shows, from Masterchef to Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares to Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals. We idolise celebrity chefs, with people paying big money at food festivals just to catch a glimpse of David Chang of Momofuku fame and Rene Redzepi of Noma. These chefs have chains of restaurants that are booked out months in advance by keen followers that want experience “greatness”.

In past decades, we had household names such as Delia Smith, Martha Stewart, and Margaret Fulton but one could argue that they weren’t passionately idolised like today’s celebrity chefs. They were women that were known and respected for their practical approach to home cooking and assisting women all over the UK, US and Australis cook for their families. Today’s chefs, on the other hand, aspire to Michelin stars, and fast fame and fortune by creating complicated dishes that none of us could even contemplate making at home unless we had sous vide water baths, or 3 days to prepare and assemble dishes made from 56 different ingredients.

But perhaps as a result of this evolution of “food”, the growth in our disposable incomes, and the trend towards eating out more rather than at home, means that we aspire to a $200 per head 8-course degustation (and that’s before wine!) and we expect it to be a life-changing experience. Fuelling this is the widespread use of social media, with diners photographing every single dish and posting it on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, and then going home immediately afterwards to write about it in bite-by-bite detail on their food blog.

The comparisons of this foodie culture to a religious cult are obvious. Celebrity chefs are our “Gods”, with everything they say published and filtered around to their followers like gospel, and every appearance brings legions of loyal followers who just want to be in their presence. Their restaurants are like churches, mosques or synagogues, where the diners all go to join other devotees to bask in a communal dining experience. Being able to tell your friends that you’ve eaten at French Laundry or El Bulli gives you a degree of bragging rights like telling people that you’ve met the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps one sad aspect of this First World obsession with foodie culture is that we seem to have become too discerning or “wanky” when it comes to food. Dinner parties are not the same any more, with hosts having the near expectation to produce gourmet Michelin star quality dishes for their guests, having to slave away for the whole day in the kitchen and forking out hard-earned money for the best quality organic shoulder of lamb or a few saffron threads. Dinner parties are about impressing your guests with the faithful reproduction of Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge rather than bringing people together and enjoying simple, clean flavours and wholesome home cooking.

Ashamedly, I admit to being a foodie culture devotee. I have a mental bucket list of food experiences that I’d like to have, I squealed with excitement when I met Heston after a lunch at the Fat Duck, and I aspire to perfect the flakiest, caramelly tarte Tatin. Having said this, I love nothing more than a cheap and cheerful dumpling restaurant, I could happily eat Shin Ramyun instant noodles for days on end, and I am more than willing to partake in a KFC bucket party, because after all, the best way to enjoy food is with good friends!

Ev TheRationalOptomist meeting Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck

* Source: Foodwise

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