It’s fun to to call yourself a chef. Even better when someone else calls you one. I’m just a serious home cook. But that hasn’t kept me from playing along when, for a webcast or radio interview, someone has been generous enough to call me “Chef Luke” while I walked their audience through the basics of knife care or beef stock preparation.
A chef, loosely defined, is someone who cooks for a living. But the more accurate term for that is “line cook,” or “professional cook” or just plain “cook.”
“Chef,” used properly, refers to “a highly skilled professional proficient in all aspects of food preparation.” As my Culinary Institute of America cookbook says, a chef is “a lifelong student, a teacher, a craftsman….[with] an appreciation of and dedication to quality and excellence, and a sense of responsibility to self and the community.”
By that definition, I think it’s safe to say that Paula Deen, Guy Fieri, Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee are not chefs. Not by a long shot. And as Anthony Bourdain—yeah, he’s a real chef—suggested in his provocative TV Guide interview this week, none of these people should be allowed near a kitchen.
You can pick your reasons why they should be barred. You can cite their across-the-board love of sugar and refined flour or their shameless hawking of processed foods. You could go after their near-complete silence on matters of source, or freshness, or farmers or the humane treatment of animals. You could mention how they undermine their own industry, encouraging fans to continue lowering the bar on restaurant food quality for the sake of saving another dollar eating out, all the while snuggling up with giant food conglomerates happy to provide your family another supersized “meal” for cheap.
In his interview with TV Guide, Bourdain said, “the worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you.”
As expected, most of the media response has focused on Paula Deen’s love of butter (as well as sugar and deep-fried foods). But they’re missing Bourdain’s larger point.
These over-the-top, fashion-challenged, cartoonish, catch-phrasing in-your-face TV chef personalities are on a mission to deepen America’s pathological relationship with food. If you were an alien species hoping to weaken the human race by steering it toward a diet of “awesome extreme pepper jack pretzels and red rocker margarita chicken poppers,” this is the group you’d send to Earth.
So, no, these folks are not so much chefs as they are weapons of culinary warfare sent from outer space. Their targets: good food and good health. And though their jaws might smart from Anthony Bourdain’s jabs, they should count themselves lucky.
Truth is, he was easy on ‘em. Next time, he just might take off the oven mitts.