Ah, those inspiring icons of American popular culture, so rugged and rebellious and romantic. The cowboy. The gumshoe. The bomber pilot. The chef.
That's right, the chef. Take a look at the current cultural landscape. The two most recent National Book Award winners for fiction have chefs as significant characters (Denise in The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, is the bisexual chef at an ultratrendy Philadelphia restaurant; Dennis in Three Junes, by Julia Glass, is the nurturer who creates a feast to comfort the mourners at his father's funeral). Two acclaimed novels by young writers published this spring focus on immigrant chefs, an Arab-American woman in Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber, and a Vietnamese man who cooked for Gertrude Stein in The Book of Salt by Monique Truong.
Art-house films were lured into the kitchen a while ago with movies like Babette's Feast (1987) and Big Night (1996), but in the past few years chefs have turned up in all sorts of movies. Independent films have continued to go culinary: Mostly Martha, about a workaholic chef in Hamburg; Dinner Rush, about a TriBeCa restaurant facing family upheaval and Mafia pressures. But there have also been bigger-budget star vehicles like Vatel, with Gérard Depardieu as the man who arranged Louis XIV's banquets, and forgettable romances like Woman on Top in which Penélope Cruz plays a woman who leaves her husband and finds fame as a television chef.