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Showtime for Chefs

Chefs are having a pop-culture moment in novels, movies, sitcoms and even reality TV shows. A writer considers the phenomenon.

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.

On the small screen, Julia Child's progeny are everywhere, especially on the Food Network. Chefs have even made the jump into prime time—with mixed success. The character Monica on the long-running Friends is a chef. Then there was the sitcom Emeril, starring Emeril Lagasse, which stayed around just long enough to prove that being amusing on a cooking show and being amusing in a scripted sitcom are two different things. And this summer, NBC introduced the reality show The Restaurant, which chronicles the startup of a new Manhattan restaurant by star chef Rocco DiSpirito. Oh, and let's not forget the Japanese import Fighting Foodons, an exceedingly odd Fox cartoon in which chefs bring their culinary creations to life to do battle. The show makes Iron Chef seem tame.

So why have chefs infiltrated the collective consciousness right now? Julia Glass, the author of Three Junes, whose next novel will focus in part on a pastry chef, has one theory: "At a time when the world seems particularly godless and out of control, I don't think it's too farfetched to say that the chef represents a comforting order, the kitchen a haven of safety."

Not that chefs are seen only in the kitchen these days. This new spate of characters may cook for a living, but many also have lives outside the kitchen, lives full of family trauma and romantic turbulence. In The Book of Salt the protagonist, Bình, loses his job cooking at the Governor-General's house in French-colonized Vietnam—and leaves his homeland—because of a liaison that crosses lines of race, class and sexual orientation. In Three Junes the character Dennis comes across as a giving soul not only because of his profession but also because of his devotion to his unsympathetically portrayed French wife and three sweet little daughters. It's no accident that such characters are chefs, as opposed to, say, bank tellers. "I have to confess that there's something potentially facile about casting fictional characters as chefs," Glass says. "A good cook is always both scientist and mother, both nurturer and creator: Metaphorically, you get a lot of free mileage."

To get to this point in the cultural vanguard, chefs first had to stake out a place in the public consciousness. The cooking show started that process long ago, of course; more recently, tell-all books like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (in which a chef catering a wedding has sex—with the bride!) completed it: chefs could be naughty or haughty or both—glamorous one minute, gross the next. Flawed perfectionists. That set up endless dramatic possibilities.

"The chef is a person who's a specialist," says Tony Shalhoub, the actor who caught the leading edge of the current wave playing an exacting chef named Primo in Big Night, a film about two brothers who run a struggling Italian restaurant. "Whenever you have that kind of a character, that person always knows something that not too many other people know. They hold a secret that not too many people are privy to. And they can use that knowledge, to put it tritely, for good or evil."

The chef might be a rebel, as in The Corrections, where Denise defies sexual mores and family expectations. The chef might be a manipulator, as in Dinner Rush, where the chef sleeps with a food critic to make sure his restaurant gets good buzz. Whatever the chef's role, beneath it is always that enticing food and the energetic preparation of it, things that lend themselves nicely to either the camera or the descriptive flourish. Chopping. Dicing. Clouds of steam, tongues of flame. Creative types of the past were transfixed by the vast Western wilderness; these days all the wilderness has been co-opted—there's more potential in the kitchen. Surround it with hustle and bustle, with tantrums and firings and boorish customers, and you have dramatic territory as rich as any police precinct.

Which is what the creators of The Restaurant, the reality show, hope to capture. Rather than setting up artificial tension by offering a prize, says Jamie Bruce, a co—executive producer, they're going for the real thing. "It's more of an unscripted drama, and what's a more perfect place for drama?" he says. "Everything happens in a restaurant"—people get fired, they quit, they fall in love, they break up.

Chefs, naturally, are not the only professionals whose dramatic potential has been discovered by novelists and screenwriters. Culture, high or low, is on a constant job search. For writers to tell stories, they need characters, and generally those characters have to work for a living. That play about Willy Loman wasn't called Death of Some Guy. It's natural for the people who create culture to go fishing in the here and now for their characters, and thus art imitates life. So the bull market led to movies like Wall Street and Boiler Room; news of the Ebola virus turned scientists into protagonists in movies like Outbreak and novels such as Richard Preston's The Cobra Event. A confluence of trends has made culinary artists dramatically right for this moment: the growing importance of celebrity chefs, the transformation of restaurants from places to eat in to places to be entertained, the simple fact that people are eating out more than ever before.

So where does the phenomenon go from here? There's always the danger of oversaturation. People may like to watch Jamie Oliver, "the Naked Chef," but were they really ready to see John Villa, chef at Manhattan's Pico, expose everything in this April's issue of Playgirl? Or chefs might get trapped into stereotypes—say, the "hot-tempered, bad-boy chef"—making them as dramatically limited as accountants (geeks!) or Jewish mothers (oy!).

But it's also possible that the chef will claim a piece of that coveted territory long occupied by detectives, doctors, soldiers and secret agents: characters so versatile and appealing that they never go out of style. After all, everybody has to eat.

Neil Genzlinger is an editor and writer at the New York Times.

Published September 2003
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