Ruth Bourdain is a fictional mash-up of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.
I work with a younger chef who is a total climber. He is constantly roaming around the dining room sucking up to anybody who is remotely powerful (i.e., bloggers, food critics, publicists, etc.). Recently he started getting a tattoo sleeve, and has been growing his hair out trying to look "edgy." It feels almost like he's trying to become the next Food Network celebrity. All the peacocking is getting in the way of us making good food. Am I right to want to throttle this guy? What the hell?
You are right to want to throttle that guy. And you probably should. On the other hand, your colleague is in a tough spot. The lure of sponsorships, restaurant expansion, and, ultimately, regular appearances on QVC is just so fucking powerful that many young chefs feel hellbent on building their "personal brand" early in their careers, sometimes to the neglect of their cooking.
Now, despite the rise of Top Chef and the The Next Iron Chef, you should know that this entire phenomenon is really nothing new. Back in the early 1800s, Marie-Antoine Careme—who is often cited as the world's first celebrity chef—didn't get where he was solely on the basis of his cooking. Did you know he was one of the first famous chefs to sport tattoos (notably, a tramp stamp of a canelé with lightning bolts shooting out of the sides). And, by popularizing Dutch wooden clogs in the kitchen and out on the town, he was the forebear of Croc-loving Mario Batali.
Now, for every culinidiot wearing a flaming shirt, there are other celebrity-chef style statements that have some real substance behind them. The aspiring celebrity chef must walk a very fine line.
Let's say you want to be the next Rachael Ray (which is, frankly, a very fucking disturbing goal); adding an extra and unnecessary vowel to your first name is just too obvious, not to mention completely unnecessary and way too hard for food writers to remember. That's Public Relations 101.
Or say you want to be the next Mario Batali. That doesn't mean you should start wearing children's shoes. As fucked-up a fashion choice as Crocs are, at least they relieve the strain on feet and legs from standing hour after hour in a professional kitchen. But deciding to make a statement by wearing those kids' sneakers that light up when you stomp your feet or, God fucking forbid, saddle shoes is a dead giveaway that you're just trying too hard (and that you're off your rocker).
On the other hand, there are some actual benefits to even some of the most common celebrity-chef gimmicks. While spiky hair is becoming a cliché for the budding celebrity chef, the hairdos favored by the likes of Guy Fieri, Richard Blais, and Anne Burrell do have a real function: They are excellent for scrubbing pots or deglazing a pan.
I also endorse the grooming habits made famous by Tom Colicchio: the signature bald pate plus a scratchy soul patch, also embraced by chefs Michael Symon and (in a slightly modified chin-strap version) Michael Psilakis. While it is in jeopardy of becoming a cliché, when pulled off right, the look exemplifies an executive chef's commitment to both the front of the house and the kitchen: The bald head is fantastic for buffing wineglasses and silverware to a fantastic shine; and the flavor saver functions as a sort of palate palette, containing a miniature mise en place of flavors, aromas, essential oils, and, of course, the occasional crumb. Now that's some smart shit.
So, when does amuse-bouche turn into amuse-douche? It's not entirely clear that your chef colleague has gone off the deep end yet. But watch him carefully, steer him clear of extraneous vowels and children's footwear, shave his head while he's sleeping, and you may have put him on the right path.
Got an etiquette dilemma for RuBo? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.