If you could have a dinner date with any celebrity chef, who would it be? And what would you eat?
This question was tied to a contest on the “Hot From The Kettle” website which has been running for the past few weeks. This coming Friday, I will be doing a meatball cooking segment on the aforementioned, “Hot From The Kettle” show based out of Montclair. Foodies were given the opportunity to write their best answer to that question, and the person with the best response will be chosen to be my in-studio meatball rolling assistant on the set. There were many great answers (and a few flattering ones where people actually picked me), but I am not quite on the level of my idol Guy Fieri—not just yet anyway.
This takes us to a facebook question that my paisan Tony Mangia posted recently: “Why is the term ‘chef’ used way too often nowadays?” It sparked an interesting exchange. This led to a blog on Tony’s “Ciao Down” site where he expanded on his thoughts as follows...“To become a chef, you need years of training and cooking on the line in a restaurant. Anyone can put on a chef’s coat, but only the ones who’ve worked in the trenches should have the distinction of being called ‘CHEF’!” His status update and blog prompted my reaction and this blog. Here’s my take…
My feeling is that the term “chef” was never officially defined to require culinary training and/or line experience and always broadly meant “one who cooks for a profession.” It has evolved from that to basically anyone involved in any food venture. The current (much-overused) “celebrity chef” title is basically anyone involved in any food venture publically known via mass media (TV, published works, internet fame). Can a self-taught cook (either famous or unknown) be elevated into the chef category, and if so, how does it happen? Does becoming famous automatically elevate the stature?
Take Sandra Lee—no formal training and/or line experience, yet due to her fame is known as one. Same with Rachael Ray. Yet, even those who did get a formal education and started out in “the trenches” (like Emeril) get so far removed from that world (almost instantly) when the “celebrity” word gets inserted before the chef title—where it’s then all about merchandising and endorsements. Emeril is a guy who went through all the schooling and the cooking and was a successful chef and restaurateur for years, but his real fame and fortune came the day the stepped in front of the camera and first shouted his signature “Bam!” Does that make him a sell-out or just very smart? I said it before, a large part of all of this is not culinary expertise at all—and although Emeril had it—it’s mostly about the entertainment factor and name brand marketability. The casual viewer simply does not put that much stock into the “background” of the person.
At the end of the day, Emeril and RR are in the same category and to that casual observer they have the same skills/expertise—despite the fact that Emeril went to Johnson & Wales and Rachael did supermarket demos. I won’t lie, I’d love to be as big as Emeril and RR with personalized pots and pans and various products, but I’ll always be the meatball cugine from the neighborhood—simply representing classic comfort foods prepared like someone’s grandmother would do it. I still have to strive to become the true king of my empire, especially after watching two episodes of “America’s Next Great Restaurant” and “Joey Saucy Balls”—who is attempting to declare himself as a celebrity chef. (I still haven’t heard from him with regards to my throwdown challenge.)
This is really not a new phenomenon. People with no medical training are labeled “Doctor,” with “honorary degrees” for their “contributions to the field.” Such contributions are always in the eye of the beholder (and usually from a biased eye from someone with their own agenda—generally due to one’s monetary contributions to the field.)
I’m all for changing “celebrity chef” to celebrity cook, food personality, famous foodie or food star. Maybe I’ll go by “Cuisine Cugine” or “Goomba Gourmet?” Nah, I’ll stick with Meatball King of New Jersey. As for “chef,” well, until it becomes more official—right or wrong—even someone working at Subway may call themselves that. Oh wait, they go by “sandwich artist.” I am now prepared for a barrage of artists out there to give their two cents on why that term is used so loosely…
If one draws a picture, are they automatically now an artist? Like chef, there was never any such criteria placed on that word. But if Picasso was alive today, maybe he would have a gripe with pop stars calling themselves “recording artists.” I recorded a song, am I a recording artist? I guess so, as there are no such standards on the term. But just because I did “The Meatball Song” as an homage to the songs of the great recording artist Lou Monte, that does NOT make me Lou Monte.
A few years ago I manned a flat-top grill in a café every day for six months. And I often talk about the knowledge I picked up working for five years as a distributor of imported Italian products. From there I did home-based catering and now, I make meatballs for a living in a commercial warehouse kitchen. I don’t roll every single one but I oversee the production and supervise a staff to make sure that my recipe is executed accurately. If a ball is not up to par, it doesn’t go out the door. That’s my overall experience in the food field. I make it a point to learn something new every day and I don’t seek honorary distinctions, I just like to see the reactions on the peoples’ faces who enjoy my meatballs. I pride myself on being self-taught.
Yes, I was on TV and I have my face on a food product sold in stores. I’m releasing a cookbook next month. Based on those factors, am I comfortable with referring to myself as a “celebrity chef.” Certainly not. Even when I am running my own restaurant (my eventual goal this year), and even if that leads to me getting back on TV full-time, I still don’t think the chef term will be appropriate for me.
As I said, I want people to think of me as a modern, male version of their nonna. My grandmother cooked enough food to feed an army at every meal (holidays, it was enough for the army, navy and marines combined). One can say that that is certainly comparable to being in “the trenches” of a fine dining establishment, but my grandmother never would have been comfortable with the chef title either.
I do indeed have a lot of promotional endeavors going on and various food related ventures and projects on my plate but at the end of the day, what’s most important is the food itself. If you stay true to your roots and cook from the heart with passion and dedication—that’s what counts—not titles or recognition.
With all of this being said, there is one title that I do definitely embrace to describe myself and that’s “author.” I have been writing since grammar school. I first got published writing for the high school paper and the Hasbrouck Heights town paper, The Observer. I had my articles in The Record, Steppin’ Out Magazine, several books, and in several magazines. I definitely feel that that is one title I have earned and if I’m not recognized for anything else, I hope my love for writing and storytelling shines through. This blog has evolved into a book and I am more proud of that than anything. I write not to “teach,” as much as I write to share my experiences with the world.
Writing is my ultimate form of therapeutic expression and just as I encourage everyone to make my recipes their own, I encourage everyone to sit down and just write what they feel. Not only does it spark thought-provoking commentary, it also creates different perspectives on topics that one may not otherwise see. Just as Tony’s comments sparked his own blog and have sparked me to write this one. I think many of my best blogs have evolved from simple facebook comments. It’s ironic that the other place that such thought-provoking commentary takes place is at the dinner table…
Now let’s eat! Enjoy your upcoming St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day festivities with a good meal and good friends!