There is a long history of celebrity chefs dating back to the nineteenth century. However, the contemporary celebrity chef is a result of the increased popularity of television food programming, the expansion of cable and satellite channels devoted to food, and the increasingly close relationships between media and restaurant industries. Since the early 2000s, academic research on celebrity chefs has developed significantly. This body of work often focuses on how chefs mediate ideas about what and how to eat, define “good” and “bad” food practices, and shape ideas about healthy eating and ethical food practices. More generally, researchers also explore how celebrity chefs reproduce or challenge wider inequalities based on class, gender, and “race.”
The study of celebrity chefs emerged at the same time as a more widespread academic interest in celebrity. Like celebrity studies more generally, early studies of celebrity chefs often originated in media and cultural studies and some current research is still shaped by this field. However, just as food studies is interdisciplinary in character, most research on celebrity chefs is also interdisciplinary and shaped by researchers using theories and methods from a range of fields such as sociology, geography, anthropology, history, linguistics, and economics. The study of celebrity chefs also shares a methodological tendency to focus on questions of representation and methods of textual analysis with celebrity studies more generally. Although there has been little explicit discussion of methodology in the study of celebrity chefs, research has begun to respond to Roger Dickinson’s (2013) call for more studies of the production and reception of food media and on the role of celebrity chefs in everyday life.
It is difficult to offer a precise definition of the term “celebrity chef.” They are usually figures associated with food who, like celebrities more generally, have, as Chris Rojek (2001: 10) suggests, an “impact on public consciousness.” As a result, there may be significant interest in their private life as well as their public role with food. Celebrity chefs tend to have achieved sufficient fame to impact on public ideas about what and how to eat although, as will become clear, they also shape ideas about issues such as class, gender, health, and lifestyle beyond the specific field of food. While the terms “celebrity chef” and “television chef” are often used interchangeably, some celebrity chefs such as René Redzepi (associated with Danish restaurant Noma) and Ferran Adrià (associated with Spanish restaurant El Bulli) remain primarily known for their celebrated restaurants rather than their media appearances. Some celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have abandoned the role of restaurant chef to focus on media work and food businesses, while others such as Nigella Lawson and Ree Drummond do not claim to be chefs at all and share their expertise as home cooks.
A key theme in research on celebrity chefs concerns how they act as what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) calls “cultural intermediaries.” This refers to the power of celebrity chefs to mediate and shape ideas about how and what to eat, and specifically, what is deemed “good” to eat. If contemporary consumer culture is often characterized by an emphasis on choice, which people (who can afford it) find overwhelming, then celebrity chefs offer guidance and advice on cooking and eating practices. As this article goes on to show, much academic research focuses on what their advice can tell us about the social and cultural meanings of food and food’s relationships to wider power relations and inequalities.
Contemporary celebrity chefs are often associated with a high-profile presence across a range of media forms from publishing and television through to Twitter and Instagram. However, there is a much longer history of chefs who have achieved a degree of celebrity and influence through cookbooks or television, through their impact on professional cookery, and/or through their wider media presence. While historical research on celebrity chefs is still an emerging field of study, studies demonstrate some continuities between past and present celebrity chefs.
Marie-Antoine Carême is frequently referred to as the first celebrity chef. The groundbreaking French chef achieved considerable fame in the early nineteenth century, for both the spectacular dishes he prepared for elites and the press coverage that fuelled sales of his cookbooks. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson’s (1998) research on the invention of gastronomy in France demonstrates how Carême, like many later celebrity chefs, was a “cultural entrepreneur” who set out to shape wider public ideas about French cuisine beyond those of people who directly experienced his cooking. Despite the wildly elaborate nature of many of his dishes, he emphasized their accessibility for a wider bourgeois public—a strategy also used by celebrity chefs today. Later in the nineteenth century, flamboyant British-based French chef Alexis Soyer was another example of an early celebrity chef. Signe Rousseau (2012a) demonstrates how he set out to consciously create himself as a brand and took advantage of the expanding book market and increasing literacy with small and affordable cookbooks such as A Shilling Cookbook for the People aimed at working-class readers. He not only sold over a quarter of a million copies of his cookbooks but also, in a move that prefigures some of the political interventions of chefs such as Jamie Oliver, gained considerable fame for his philanthropic work.
The contemporary celebrity chef is usually seen as a product of television. Kathleen Collins (2009) produced the first substantial overview of the historical development of cookery television, primarily in the United States, from its roots in radio broadcasting through to the 2000s. She offers insights into the role of notable early television chefs such as James Beard and Dione Lucas, who featured on US television in the 1940s and 1950s and helped to develop some of the features of cookery TV. In the UK, early notable television chefs included cookbook writer and restaurateur Marcel Boulestin in the late 1930s. Rachel Moseley (2009) has demonstrated the use of television archives in exploring the history of celebrity chefs in her study of British home economist and prolific cookery writer Marguerite Patten, who featured in cookery programming produced for a female audience.
Dana Polan’s (2011) study of US television chef and cookery writer Julia Child demonstrates her significant impact on the development of cookery television. Child fused instruction on how to cook with entertainment and an infectious sense of fun that highlighted the pleasures of food and eating. Her popularization of French cuisine and emphasis on cooking as a pleasurable leisure activity helped to reshape the food practices of middle-class Americans in the 1960s.
Other key figures from this period include flamboyant television cook Fanny Craddock, Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr, and British television and cookery writer Philip Harben. Frances Bonner (2009) demonstrates how television chefs like Harben and Kerr helped to pioneer some of the strategies used by later celebrity chefs. Known as “the television chef,” Harben not only had a distinctive visual brand centered around his trademark striped butcher’s apron, but content from his television shows was also “repurposed” in cookery books in an early example of multi-platforming. He also launched his own range of cookware (Harbenware) and featured on light entertainment programming (e.g., What’s My Line?).
Although not all celebrity chefs are involved in the restaurant industry, the rise of the celebrity chef can be partly understood in relation to the increasing importance of branding and fame in the economically risky restaurant industry. Researchers such as Christel Lane (2013) have shown how traditional accolades such as Michelin stars still shape a chef’s status and reputation. However, as chefs have become increasingly concerned with the economic profitability of their restaurants, they have turned to other sectors such as media and merchandising to boost profits. Branding and public relations have been more important in building chefs’ careers and most celebrity chefs’ brands are cross-media packages, bringing together TV, publishing, journalism, and social media.
A chef’s professional legitimacy and reputation is shaped by their position in what Parkhurst Ferguson (1998), drawing on Bourdieu (1984), calls the “culinary field.” Research by Silviya Svejenova, Carmelo Mazza, and Marcel Planellas (2007) demonstrates how the brands of superstar chefs such as Ferran Adrià are based on their culinary distinction and the rarity of their artistic talents. Other chefs risk their status as serious culinary artists or artisans in the pursuit of media exposure, celebrity, and economic profit. In their study of acclaimed British chef Heston Blumenthal, Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones (2010) show how Blumenthal attempted to construct a media presence that reinforced his artistic credibility as a chef in order to negotiate the tension between legitimacy and celebrity, between artistic credibility and “selling out.”
Celebrity chefs also need to be understood within the economics of the media industries. Top television chefs frequently feature in bestseller charts in the publishing industry. Television shows enable chefs to develop their brand identities and these, in turn, can play a reciprocal role in developing brand images for TV channels, whether a broadcast television channel such as the UK’s Channel 4 or specialist cable channels like the Food Network. Early research by Signe Rousseau (2012b) on celebrity chefs’ use of social media demonstrates how digital and interactive media offer new opportunities for chefs to extend their reach and brands across a range of platforms from Twitter and YouTube to computer games and recipe apps. Some chefs have become players within the media industries, setting up their own magazines and TV production companies. For example, Gordon Ramsay founded the multimedia production company Studio Ramsay.
While researchers such as Signe Rousseau (2012a) have explored the relationships between celebrity chefs and the publishing industry, many studies examine food television. One aspect of this research focuses on the use of genre and formats within food television. Niki Strange (1998) carried out a directional study of the relationships between presenter and genre in British public service television cookery series and how they are gendered. Peter Naccarato and Kathleen Lebesco (2013) offer an alternative typology for classifying cookery programming on the Food Network in the United States, drawing distinctions between “traditional,” “modern,” and “competitive” programming. Michelle Phillipov (2017) also demonstrates how celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have mobilized particular conventions within their television shows to develop their wider business ventures. Her research on food television in Australia demonstrates the impact of close relationships between celebrity chefs, food programming, and the food industries using, for example, sponsorship deals.
Many researchers are interested in how celebrity chefs mediate ideas about food and lifestyle. The boom in television cookery in the early 2000s was part of a wider growth in what became known as “lifestyle television,” and there is now a substantial body of research that explores how this genre offers viewers guidance on how to “transform” and “make over” the self in order to “improve” their lifestyle. The rise of lifestyle television has been linked to a post-Fordist consumer culture, in which consumers are continually forced to choose between products in order to construct unique lifestyles.
In early work on Jamie Oliver, Rachel Moseley (2001) demonstrates how his series The Naked Chef used a “grainy realist aesthetic” that gives the sense that we are watching a “docu-soap” about Jamie’s life. We are invited to see how Jamie uses food among a wider range of practices through which he constructs his lifestyle. In this context, television chefs have been seen as cultural intermediaries who act as lifestyle experts and offer guidance on how to cook and eat “good” food to create a better “self.” The appeal of celebrity chefs may be partly as a result of the fact that people can experience anxiety about what to eat, especially as they are bombarded with conflicting advice. As Peter Jackson (2015) suggests, celebrity chefs may also offer the kinds of food advice that might once have been offered by family and friends.
Moseley argues that The Naked Chef makes Jamie’s food practices, and wider lifestyle, appear to be accessible and achievable. However, research by Joanne Hollows (2003a) on Jamie Oliver draws on Pierre Bourdieu to demonstrate how The Naked Chef legitimates the food tastes and dispositions associated with the new middle classes as the “correct” food tastes and dispositions. While Bourdieu associated working-class food practices with the practical need to put food on the table to satisfy everyone’s hunger on a limited budget, he argues that the new middle classes view food and cooking as a site of fun and aestheticized pleasure. In The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver’s relaxed and youthful attitude to cooking, and life in general, demonstrates how the mundane act of cooking can be a source of pleasure and fun. Hollows’ (2003b) study of Nigella Lawson also demonstrates how her TV shows and cookery books portray cooking as a pleasurable lifestyle activity, again legitimating new middle-class lifestyles. In a similar way, research by Peter Naccarato and Kathleen Lebesco (2013) on cookery shows on the Food Network in the United States suggests that they use “a discourse of self-improvement.” Viewers are offered the opportunity to demonstrate their distinction by using class-based “culinary capital” they have learned from celebrity chefs.
Although there has been less sustained investigation of relationships between race and celebrity chefs, Naccarato and Lebesco (2013) show how television cookery shows “reinforce whiteness as normative within foodie culture.” Grace Wang’s (2010) analysis of the US cookery competition show Top Chef highlights how the series reproduces “racialized” stereotypes in its representation of Asian-American chefs. Many celebrity chefs have starred in culinary travelogues that celebrate the food and people of “elsewhere” while simultaneously representing them as “Other.”
However, this does not mean that audiences simply accept the ways in which celebrity chefs construct the meaning of food. Nick Piper (2015a) used interviews and focus groups to investigate audience responses to Jamie Oliver and discovered that some audiences rejected the chef’s authority based on their own class-based food knowledges and practices, and their wider cultural, economic, and social experience. Piper is not the only researcher to examine audiences of TV food programming. Isabelle de Solier (2013) examines how people use cookery TV, alongside other food media, in their everyday lives. Christine Barnes (2017) explores how audiences engaged with Jamie Oliver in his show Save With Jamie. While some people found Jamie’s guidance on “good food” to be “inspiring” in their everyday lives, others, as in Piper’s study, resisted Jamie’s attempts to intervene in their food practices. The audience studies demonstrate that celebrity chefs’ texts do not necessarily have any kind of straightforward impact on audiences’ food knowledges, tastes, and practices.
Celebrity chefs do not only mediate ideas about class and cooking. There is a large body of research that demonstrates how food practices are a key site through which the meanings of masculinity and femininity are produced and reproduced. One aspect of this research focuses on the role of celebrity chefs in mediating ideas about gender and cooking and how they work to gender food practices.
Researchers such as Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston (2015) have demonstrated the continuing relationships between food practices and femininity. They show how, despite some shifts toward increasing gender equality, contemporary food cultures continue to create pressures on women to be “a good mother, a responsible caregiver, a healthy woman, a discerning consumer, and an ethically minded shopper.” While evidence suggests that an increasing number of men cook—and some are enthusiastic cooks—research also suggests that for many men, there is a choice about whether and when to cook while women are encouraged to feel a sense of duty and responsibility to care for others through their cooking practices. As a result, there are more opportunities for men to experience food practices as a form of leisure rather than labor.
Many researchers have been interested in the extent to which celebrity chefs reproduce or challenge these ideas about gender and cooking. As Naccarato and Lebesco (2013) observe, “traditional” instructional cooking shows in the United States associated with celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Giada De Laurentiis work to naturalize more traditional modes of feminine domesticity, in which women’s lives are located in terms of family, the kitchen, and domestic life. By contrast, they observe that “modern” cookery programs demonstrate the labor involved in women’s caring work and explicitly celebrate the practical pleasures of quick and convenience cooking. Celebrity chefs associated with this trend include Robin Miller and Sandra Lee. They also notice the increased visibility of male celebrity chefs in domestic space in daytime programming on the Food Network.
Studies of British celebrity chefs also highlight how celebrity chefs both reproduce and challenge conventional ideas about gender, domesticity, and cooking. For example, Joanne Hollows (2003b) demonstrates that while Nigella Lawson is positioned as a mother who cares for her children and friends through feeding work, her TV shows and cookbooks also negotiate a new mode of (middle-class) domestic femininity in which women can use food to care for themselves and can prioritize the pleasures of cooking and eating.
However, research by Johnston, Rodney, and Chong (2014) highlights how female celebrity chefs still remain restricted to a narrow range of “culinary personas” such as “the homebody” (e.g., Rachael Ray and Ree Drummond), “the home stylist” (e.g., Ina Garten and Ching He Huang), and “the pin-up” (e.g., Giada De Laurentiis and Padma Lakshmi). Based on their analysis of celebrity chefs’ cookbooks and culinary personas, Johnston et al. (2014) conclude that there remain “surprisingly stereotypical gender patterns that privilege the legitimacy of the male professional chef over ‘the less-valued female home-cook.’” Jonatan Leer’s (2017b) study of European celebrity chefs also demonstrates the resilience of the dichotomy between the male professional cook and female home cook.
Rodney, Johnston, and Chong (2017) demonstrate how male celebrity chefs occupy a contrasting range of culinary personas: the “maverick” (e.g., Ted Allen and Alton Brown), the “chef-artisan” (e.g., Marco Batali and Gordon Ramsay), “self-made men” (e.g., Guy Fieri), and “gastrosexuals” who embrace home cooking (e.g., Bill Granger and Jamie Oliver). Although researchers such as Joanne Hollows (2003a) have demonstrated how TV cooks like Jamie Oliver negotiate new forms of domestic masculinity in which men are at home in, but not constrained by, domestic kitchens, Rodney et al. (2017) show how, across the board, most male celebrity chefs gain status from their professional roles in the restaurant kitchen. This does little to challenge the association between femininity, domestic cooking, and caring work. Furthermore, other research demonstrates how television cookery shows naturalize the professional kitchen as a masculine space, reproducing the construction of the chef as a male occupation. For example, Ellen Herkes and Guy Redden (2017) highlight how Masterchef Australia valorizes professional gastronomic cookery as a space of “hard” masculinity.
Nevertheless, there are some signs of change. Jonatan Leer (2017a) examines an episode of the French food program Le Chef Contre-Attaque hosted by popular celebrity chef Cyril Lignac who attempts to transform “ordinary men” who do not cook into “modern” men who help their wives with the cooking. While this initially appears to be a promising shift in which doing domestic cookery is seen as part of desirable contemporary masculinities, Leer also notes how the show legitimates middle-class dispositions toward food and seeks to “improve” working-class non-cooks by making them more like the middle class. This also highlights the importance of examining how forms of difference intersect in representations of celebrity chefs. These chefs represent and negotiate identities that are not simply gendered but are also crosscut by other forms of difference such as class, “race,” ethnicity, and sexuality.
Food activism by celebrity chefs can be understood within a wider landscape in which there has been a “celebritization” of a range of social, ethical, and political issues. As Josée Johnston and Mike Goodman (2015) argue, “politicized” celebrity chefs do not simply tell us how and what to eat but also shape definitions of the “‘good’ food citizen” who feeds themselves and their families “proper” and “healthy” food and are guided by ideas about “sustainable” food practices. Some celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Curtis Stone have made food activism central to their brand image. Research by Tania Lewis (2008) locates the significance of celebrity chefs’ campaigns around issues such as animal welfare and the environment within the wider context of the expansion of “ethical” consumption and consumer goods and the “greening” of lifestyle television. More broadly, Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann’s (2015) study Foodies demonstrates how ethical food practices need to be understood within wider relationships between classed lifestyles and food.
There is now a substantial body of research on the ways in which celebrity chefs have campaigned on ethical issues. Their food activism frequently works to “responsibilize,” in different ways, governments and the state, food producers, food retailers, and consumers in order to solve a particular food problem. Here celebrity chefs’ roles as cultural intermediaries take on a more explicit moral dimension, and qualities such as care and compassion become part of a chef’s brand. For example, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaigning culinary documentary Hugh’s Chicken Run attempted to transform the practices of chicken producers, retailers, and consumers to improve the welfare of chickens. However, as David Bell et al. (2017) demonstrate, the series also drew distinctions between “good” ethical consumers and “bad” unethical consumers who reproduced class hierarchies. Researchers such as Michelle Phillipov (2017), and Tania Lewis and Alison Huber (2015) also demonstrate how celebrity chefs may not only use their ethical credentials to market their own brands but also their “ethical capital” can be used by supermarkets that seek associations with celebrity chefs to boost their own brand image.
If celebrity chefs often offer the promise of transforming the self by changing our cooking and eating practices, then a number of food celebrities have focused in particular on promising to “improve” our health. For example, Signe Rousseau (2012a) highlights the power of celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver to “interfere” with and define ideas about “good” and “healthy” eating. Indeed, there is now a substantial body of research on Jamie Oliver’s campaigning culinary documentaries such as Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food in the UK and Jamie’s Food Revolution in the United States. These series, which Peter Jackson (2015) characterizes as “morally charged political campaigns,” center around a problem-solving narrative in which Jamie Oliver attempts to solve health crises caused by “unhealthy” eating practices.
Researchers such as Emma Rich (2011), Kristina Gibson and Sarah Dempsey (2015), and Megan Warin (2011) have applied French theorist Michel Foucault’s ideas to argue that these series encourage viewers to engage in forms of self-surveillance and make it appear as if individuals must be responsible for their own health and welfare. As a result, it is argued that these series naturalize neoliberal values that legitimize attacks on state provision of health and welfare services by responsibilizing individuals to “take control” of their own well-being. Most researchers in this area, including Jackson (2015), Bell et al. (2017), and Fox and Smith (2011), highlight how these series make distinctions between “good” and “bad”—“healthy” and “unhealthy”—lifestyles that are both classed and gendered. For example, working-class mothers are often shown to have “bad” feeding practices that have a negative impact on their children’s health. This makes health appear to be a result of individual lifestyle choices rather than a result of wider economic inequalities. While these campaigns help to build the celebrity image of stars like Jamie Oliver as caring, compassionate, and selfless campaigners, this does not mean that audiences simply accept these meanings. As was suggested above, audience research by Nick Piper (2015b) demonstrates how audiences have “contradictory” and “ambivalent” relationships to celebrity chefs.
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