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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Age of the Diva Chef

The age of the temperamental chef—the diva chef who acts like an opera or a rock star—has been with us for quite a while. Television Chef Gordon Ramsay wasn’t the first to claim culinary infallibility, and he certainly won’t be the last. Mr. Ramsay, of course, has the over-the-top temper of a redhead (some say redheads have the worst temper in the world). To my mind, Chef Ramsay is a screaming heart attack waiting to happen. Any man who has a nervous breakdown because soup—in this case the Potato soup at the Hot Potato Café on Fishtown’s Girard Avenue—is a little lumpy, or because it tastes like glue, needs a little therapy.
In case you haven’t heard, Chef Ramsay visited the Fishtown eatery for his TV show ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’ When he tasted Hot Potato Café’s potato soup, he went ballistic. Since the purpose of the show is to get the down-on-their-heels restaurateurs to clean up their act, the chef did succeed in getting Hot Potato Café to eventually correct the quality of their food, according to the latest reports.
Fair enough, but why does it take a lot of screaming and shouting to get restaurant owners to “see” common sense things? Conversely, there are many restaurants and cafes that survive with passable, mediocre food. It’s also true that at many of the so called hip restaurants it’s not uncommon to go away hungry, since today’s fashion is about presentation and “minimalism” rather than quelling the appetites of the hungry. (Think burly contractor types who prefer hearty servings over sparrow smatterings arranged artistically on delicate plates).
The Hot Potato Café owners, Claire and Kathryn, although initially driven to tears by Chef Ramsay’s tirade, now realize that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Today the whole nation knows about Fishtown’s obscure little restaurant, and for that the sister owners should be proud. But while Chef Ramsay’s tantrums make for fun TV, the diva chef who throws a tantrum is a common phenomenon in today’s world.
One of my first jobs in Center City was a busboy gig at the Barclay Hotel. The chef at that time was a soon-to-be famous local TV chef who later became an international celebrity. His tirades in the Barclay kitchen included acting out with butcher knives and screaming f-word invectives that filtered out into the sea of white linen-covered tables. In those days, I thanked my lucky stars that I was just a lowly busboy (hence out of the chef’s firing range), and not one of the haggard looking, psychologically beaten down waiters, wounded from Chef’s verbal bullets.
“Chef is having a bad day,” the maitre-de would announce then, as if describing the acting out of a mental patient in a hospital isolation ward. In those days I could well understand why an artist like Cezanne or Picasso might throw his paint brush against the wall or even destroy a canvass or two, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the same sort of emotion spent on creating food items. Food is something you consume at a rapid pace; it was never meant to be art form.
Art, after all, is something that lasts, not something that winds up in city sewers.
The Barclay of course had its perks. In the dining room I met many of Philadelphia’s movers and shakers. (Years later, while a waiter at John Wanamaker’s Crystal Tea Room, I met Margaret Hamilton, the bad witch from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ whose lined face still conjured up images of munchkins and swirling broomsticks). One day, Civil Rights pioneer Cecil B. Moore, the politician known for desegregating Girard College, turned to me (in between long puffs of his cigar), and said, “Boy, get me another glass of water.” True, I was a boy, but Mr. Moore’s use of the word ‘boy’ that afternoon seemed to have a special significance. In fact, I had the distinct impression then that Mr. Moore went around to all the restaurants in town and made it a point to call all the white boys ‘boy.’
No doubt Mr. Moore was out to prove a point about Civil Rights, and I fell into his firing range.
At the Crystal Room, I barely noticed the chef there, which suggests that he was most definitely not a diva but more of the chief line cook, a first among equals. The Crystal Room’s biggest draw was tea sandwiches and soup, an item with about as much chic ambience as the standard giveaway in homeless soup kitchens. The Crystal Room chef still wore the classic tall white hat, although you’d never catch him walking around the restaurant shaking hands with VIP diners as the “creator” of marvelous dishes. Today when a famous Chef walks among diners, he shakes hands like a politician despite the fact that his creation has already disappeared into scores of digestive tracts.
When I met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck several years ago at a press event in Atlantic City, there was so much fanfare you’d have thought that an ex-President was in the room. As fellow journalists clamored to devour Mr. Puck’s latest creation—Flat Iron Steak with Peppercorn Sauce and Blue Cheese Butter—I found little difference between Puck’s creation and a “normal” Beef Kebob found in most Asian eateries.. An equal comparison, in fact, might be how blogging has come to be seen as its own profession on an equal par with serious journalism, rather than as a sideline or adjunct pursuit.
As for Chef Ramsay and his ilk, I say this: Cool it. Your message will still be heard.

Thom Nickels

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