American Food and Drink
American Food Culture
Copyright © Elliot Essman 2013. All rights reserved.
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The image of the American professional cook in 1960 was a dismal one: among hundreds of thousands of underpaid short order assembly line cooks, a handful of crotchety craftsmen, usually European and also underpaid, plied their fussy trade. American professional cooking lacked any kind of glamour or cultural appeal. Food popularizers like cookbook writer James Beard and New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne were beginning to make a mark, but it was an uphill battle.
In the mid-1960s, one exceptional middle-aged woman changed all that. Julia Childís public television series The French Chef and the accompanying Mastering The Art Of French Cooking books gave fine cooking a greater level of cultural appeal in America; the process became as important as the result; the chef began to take the focus rather than toil in the background. Tall, gangling, uniquely voiced, and eccentric (in the finest, most genuine sense of the term) Julia Child became a cultural icon; her mannerisms and voice are still imitated by comedians, and she was never reluctant to make fun of herself and her frequent mishaps at the stove (the basis, perhaps, for her enduring public appeal). Later in life, the aging Child would be featured frequently on every sort of cooking show or news segment, as a guest of quality-of-life expert Martha Stewart, and in several television series with prominent French chef Jacques Pepin.
Julia Child laid the groundwork for television cooking, entertaining British chef Graham Kerr soon followed, but it would still be many years before the celebrity chef model in American culture would truly take off. One of the catalysts for this process was Austrian import Wolfgang Puck, whose innovative fusion cuisine turned him into a Hollywood celebrity. Undoubtedly, however, the man who would truly vault the chef into the realm of the American icon would be Emeril Lagasse, a native New Englander of French Canadian and Portuguese ancestry who, transplanted to cuisine-rich New Orleans, would become a highly regarded chef. In the 1990s the nascent Television Food Network experimented with putting Emeril in a kitchen in front of a camera; the results were average until they decided to add an audience; Lagasse, an audience master, became one of the countryís most popular and beloved celebrities.
Certain commentators have criticized Lagasse for his lack of standards in popularizing cooking; others laud his flair for bringing kitchen techniques to the masses, particularly men. No one, however, questions that his program Emeril Live, which even features a top-notch band to punctuate Emerilís interaction with his adoring audiences, has brought cookery into the light of celebrity. In a strange sense, Lagasse has popularized cooking in a manner reminiscent of the way consummate showman Liberace popularized classical music in the 1950s. Lagasse now runs an empire of restaurants, cookbooks, cookware and food products.
Emeril, of course, is not the only celebrity chef; a vast cadre, many of whom end up as guest
chefs on Emerilís own show, have been ratcheting up the profession for years. Highly
regarded chefs like Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Charlie Palmer, and Todd English are not
television hosts, but they are frequently featured on television and in all the major media.
Many of these chefs, Wolfgang Puck included, run dozens of restaurants in major cities and
in resort areas like Orlando and Las Vegas. Television chefs, like Bobby Flay, Mario Batali,
Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen, and Ming Tsai, are frequently themselves restaurateurs, while
others like cooking guru Alton Brown concentrate on informational programs and books.
How-to and feature personalities like Sara Moulton, Tyler Florence, Rachael Ray, Gordon
Elliott, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, Giada Di Laurentiis and Ina Garten round out the
package. On a local and regional basis in the United States, prominent chefs may carve out
publicity fiefdoms for themselves based on the major national models.
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