Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
In the ’90s and early aughts, a celebrity chef was someone who turned their kitchen chops (be that knife skills or simply being charming behind the counter) into Food Network shows, packed restaurants, bestselling cookbooks, merchandise, or a deal with a sought-after brand. Now, they’re someone who turns their bestselling cookbook into a Netflix show, or their YouTube show into a Hulu show, or their popular YouTube show into spinoff YouTube shows, or their blog into cookbooks, or their Instagram popularity into a TV Show, or their Twitter goldmine into a Martha Stewart-esque empire.
That’s because social media, memes, better smartphone cameras, and streaming have changed the formula for success — and Food Network faltered when all that began to take shape.
“The thing where people used to say chefs are rock stars, it really continues to be true,” says Allen Salkin, author of spicy tell-all From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.
But just like you never had to be the best musician to top the music charts, you never had to be the best chef to be a celebrity chef. It’s always been more about personality than how well one can cook. Or, how well one can interview other chefs or travel the world eating exotic foods with other famous people.
That was true in the ‘60s when Julia Child demystified French cooking. That was true when Emeril first yelled “Bam” in the ‘90s. That was true when Guy Fieri started bringing camera crews to greasy spoons in the aughts. And it’s still true now when Alison Roman answers questions about The Stew, her face masked by Instagram’s puppy-ears filter. Or when David Chang travels to Morocco with Chrissy Teigen for a Netflix show and wonders, “How the hell did she go from SI swimsuit model to the modern-day Martha Stewart almost? It’s like crazy.” (Teigen was named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in 2019, honored as a pioneer in the food space by celebrity chef Eric Ripert.)
“Even the word chef is complicated — some people define it as anyone who has a culinary degree, others say you have to run a restaurant kitchen, others say you need both,” says Emma Laperruque, food editor at Food52, an influential food site. Still, there have been home cooks who’ve made the transition to “celebrity chef.”
“These days, it can go in the opposite direction: a celebrity who turns into a culinary influencer,” she adds.
Julia Child wasn’t the only chef on public television, but she certainly is the most well-known. In 1967, four years after The French Chef taught Americans how to make crepes and cook a goose, Joyce Chen used the same set to teach upscale Chinese cooking. But Joyce Chen Cooks fizzled out after one season because it couldn’t get a sponsor. Chen, the first woman of color on a national cooking program, had to work with a vocal coach to soften her strong accent. Looking back on her show’s short life, media scholars and food historians note she didn’t have the same “charisma” as Child, and xenophobia may have played a role. (Child and Chen were friendly, and Child often ate at Chen’s Cambridge restaurant.)
For decades, PBS would be a main source of televised cooking for Americans. But the business of PBS was very different than later iterations of televised chefs. PBS offered cooking programs as a public service. The Food Network, which launched in 1993, was made to make money, and celebrity sells.
The Food Network debuted just months before Martha Stewart turned her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, into a syndicated TV show. More Americans were spending money on home decorating and improvement. The American economy was booming and people had extra cash. Stewart may be more of a lifestyle guru, but she’s also been called a celebrity chef over the years. She’s had a renaissance recently due in part to her collaboration with Snoop Dogg on a VH1 cooking show, a friendship made for the internet.
In the beginning, there wasn’t even a working oven on the Food Network’s set. One time, someone behind the scenes mistakenly ; rather than hurting the network, the flurry of complaints proved to advertisers that people were watching. Entire seasons were shot in a week. Emeril Lagasse, whose photo could have been next to the dictionary definition of “celebrity chef” in 2000, came up with his “Bam” catchphrase to wake up a tired crew.
As the Food Network grew, there was controversy in the kitchen. Food Network hosts were TV chefs. Not real chefs. The same lines in the sand would be drawn decades later as cooks began to show off their chops online. Those are YouTube chefs. Those are Instagram chefs. Not real chefs. And yet, an Instagram chef or a YouTube chef has the power to be more famous than someone who owns a successful restaurant.
“There’s disagreements with people