Thursday, September 10, 2009

Are Celebrity Chefs the New Rock Stars?

“Celebrity chefs are the new rock stars,” Ryan Scott told me as he was prepping for a meal that night in Global Gourmet Catering Company’s kitchen. That day, I talked with Ryan and three of his fellow Season 4 Top Chef contestants—Stephanie Izard, Mark Simmons, and Manuel Trevino—as they prepared a dinner for a very lucky nine guests. The dinner had been an auction prize from the February 28th American Red Cross auction, the proceeds of the which benefited the San Francisco chapter of the American Red Cross.

The new rock stars, eh?

We’ve all watched an episode Top Chef at some point; we’ve picked out our favorite contender, tasted their creations with our eyes, and watched our least favorite contestant edge out our choice contender in a Quick Fire Challenge. But the people we saw on television were characters to us. Sure, we cared about their food. But we were equally interested in their personalities, interactions, and, sometimes, their love affairs.

Could Stephanie Izard, the winner of Season 4, be the new Madonna?

"I certainly feel like I live a rock star life, that's for sure," Stephanie says. "I travel a lot now..." Stephanie is currently working on opening her new restaurant, the Drunken Goat, but is also busy traveling the country speaking to women about her career as a chef and encouraging them to pursue their own culinary dreams.

Hmmm. I’m going to go with a no on Madonna…but maybe there’s a better example; Aimee Mann perhaps?

Manuel Trevino, who is currently working on opening Travertine Restaurant in New York City this month, says, with a pause, “Well, I mean, [being a Top Chef contender] gets the word out about who we are; people want to know what you're up to so, hopefully, it helps." Manuel’s restaurant has yet to open, but it has already received buzz on Eater, the popular restaurant gossip blog, as well as New York Magazine.

In a recent New York Times article, Leah Cohen from Season 5 talked about how her restaurant attracts patrons who are interested in "critiquing [her] character as much as her cooking skills." During Season 5, Cohen shared a clandestine kiss with the eventual winner Hosea Rosenberg, which garnered a lot at attention as the season’s “showmance”. Most Top Chef contestants are young and early in their careers; the media attention they receive from being on a primetime television network is unprecedented for them and an amazing opportunity. Top Chef contestants move from being a chef in some restaurant to a name and a face that the national foodie audience recognizes. Still, it’s frustrating as new patrons come to Top Chef competitors’ restaurants not always just for their culinary creations; as Cohen attests, she became a chef patrons wanted to see, but not totally because of her cooking.

Just as we often become interested in these chefs for more than their cooking, Top Chef alumni are using their fame to promote issues beyond their cooking. Mark Simmons from Season 4 uses his “relationships with local farmers” to promote the “humane” food he serves at Market Place and Table in Brooklyn. Ryan Scott, in addition to running a personal chef and catering company and consulting for a restaurant company in Dubai, is devoting a good chunk of his time to philanthropic pursuits. He works with Meals on Wheels in San Francisco, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the American Heart Association, Share Our Strength, and, obviously, the Red Cross.

In fact, all of these chefs I talked to are taking time out of their busy schedules—Mark and Manuel flew in from New York City and Stephanie from Chicago—to give their time to aid The American Red Cross, an agency they believe in.

Also cooking for this dinner were former contestants (and San Francisco locals) Casey Thompson, Erik Hopfinger, and Jennifer Biesty, each of whom cooked one of the dinner’s seven courses. This dinner for 9 was an item at the Red Cross’s annual auction to raise money for the San Francisco chapter; the auction’s 200 items raised more than $330,000, with the Top Chef dinner alone raising $8,500.* Donna Siegel, the event coordinator for the Red Cross San Francisco, said that these chefs “[lending] their celebrity to [The Red Cross] to help bring awareness about what we do…that’s fantastic.” The Top Chef dinner was one of the most popular auction items.

And, I guess rock stars sort of do the same thing too: Madonna, especially, is known for her philanthropic bent...maybe Stephanie is, after all, the new Madonna.

*The San Francisco chapter of The American Red Cross helps individuals in need every day, be it a family who’s house just burned down or house individuals after an earthquake, theses fund will go to help San Francisco residents when they need help most.

All photos in this article by Zac Frank

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