Paula Deen Isn’t the Only Shill

Although Paula Deen’s latest role as the paid spokeswoman for a giant pharmaceutical company is turning even more stomachs than her deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese, Deen is hardly the first culinary personality to reap the benefits of egregious product endorsement. Shilling for food companies has a long and illustrious history: James Beard called himself a “gastronomic whore” after financial need compelled him to hawk Jolly Green Giant’s boil-in-a-bag Corn Niblets and wax beans.

Here, then, is a look at some of the most notable (and prolific) offenders who have put Deen’s diabetes debacle in illustrious—if not exactly good—company.

1. Alton Brown for Welch’s. From 2008 to 2009, Alton Brown could be seen squeezing Concord grapes and proselytizing about polyphenols for Welch’s 100% Grape Juice. Given that Welch’s previous spokespeople had been little kids, it was jarring, to say the least, to see them replaced by a wildly gesticulating middle-aged man. Brown, of course, had quite a standard to uphold for the Food Network, which had already seen Rachael Ray endorse Dunkin’ Donuts, Guy Fieri sing the praises of T.G.I. Friday’s, and Tyler Florence lose his religion in the name of Applebee’s.

2. Carla Hall for Fancy Feast. While most celebrity chefs limit their endorsements to food humans might eat, Hall doesn’t appear to be constrained by such boundaries. Last May, the Top Chef refugee signed on as the spokeswoman for Fancy Feast’s design-your-own-cat-food contest, an engagement that required her to star in a video with the brand’s fluffy, cranky mascot. “I’m serving something really yummy to someone special!” she told the camera, before informing viewers she’d be picking the winning recipe. Less clear was whether she’d actually taste it.

3. Tom Colicchio for Diet Coke. Back in 2009, the redoubtable Top Chef judge lent his shiny pate to Diet Coke, starring in a series of commercials in which he advised viewers, “Just keep it simple. Because when you start with good taste, you don’t need anything else.” Except, you know, cash.

4. Marcus Samuelsson for everything, more or less. In 2011, Marcus Samuelsson reminded us of two things. One, he is a very good chef. Two, he is a very good shill. Whether it was cookware, fragrance, the airline industry, heavily processed foods, kitchen linens, Buick, MasterCard, a cruise line, and supremely ugly chef’s shoes. “Be Unexpected,” reads the tag line above Samuelsson’s face on the Bleu de Chanel ads. At this point, unfortunately, the chef’s willingness to sell his handsome face to the highest bidder is anything but.

4. Rocco DiSpirito for Bertolli. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once known as New York’s Great White Hope of Italian cuisine, Rocco DiSpirito is now more recognized for his efforts to convince the public that Bertolli’s frozen meals are both Italian and edible.

5. Marco Pierre White for Knorr. Last August, the self-styled bad boy of British food signed his bad self over to the multinational Unilever to serve as the brand ambassador for its Knorr’s Homestyle Stocks in the U.S. White, who had been doing the same thing in the U.K. since 2006, responded to criticism in an interview, saying, “I’m allowed to make a living. I have a family. I have my children. I have to create security for them, and I have to feed them.” Presumably, he wasn’t able to accomplish that goal through his previous TV shows, books, restaurants, hotels, and franchise deals. But as the song goes, it’s hard out there for a pimp.

6. Rick Bayless for Burger King. In 2003, Bayless, a James Beard Award winner, organic ag booster, and Chicago’s dean of Mexican cooking, could be seen on TV peddling chicken baguettes for Burger King. The endorsement went over about as well as a turd in a swimming pool, despite Bayless’s insistence that “in flavor and mouth-feel [the sandwich is] much less processed than other fast-food offerings." Bayless donated the $300,000 he raked in from Burger King to charity, but that didn’t make his critics feel that much more charitable.

7. Alice Waters for Ameya Preserve. Yes, even Saint Alice hasn’t been immune to the temptation of filthy lucre. Back in the dark days of 2007, Waters made a deal with the developers of the Ameya Preserve, a gated second-home community in Paradise Valley, Montana. Waters signed a deal to guide plans for a restaurant and cooking school on the property (though it was actually her assistants who were put in charge of “executing her vision”) in exchange for a $100,000 donation to Slow Food Nation and a $400,000 donation to herself. Given Waters’s previous criticism of chefs who do commercial endorsements (she reportedly sent Bayless a scolding letter after he gave it up for Burger King), it was hard to tell what was more damaging to the environment: Ameya’s big fat carbon footprint, or Waters’s toxic self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

Image sources: From left, Flickr members SheriW, David Sifry, bencollsuss, and david_shankbone under Creative Commons.

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.