Too many celebrity chefs can spoil your soup

Being a celebrity chef is as much about celebrity -- and good marketing -- as it is about cooking.

Sounds like an obvious statement, but a recent SmartMoney article takes the celebrity-chef craze to task for what it considers some sleights of hand that can ruin your appetite as well as your dinner budget.

It points an especially accusing finger at the Food Network, which has spawned many of glamorous gourmets, each with product to peddle to viewers. While cooking and eating at home in lieu of dining at pricey restaurants is great in theory, the article points out you could easily undermine your frugal moves by splurging on Emeril Lagasse cast-iron cookware, Mario Batali Crocs or Rachael Ray mixing bowls, olive oil or even dog food.
The piece also takes the Food Network to task for sexing up its content. I'd heard about Giada De Laurentiis well before viewing her show, and it was only after discovering her penchant for v-neck shirts and finger-licking that I understood why all of my husband's buddies suddenly had become interested in rustic Italian cooking.

SmartMoney also points out many of the new foodie stars aren't actual chefs; they've never worn a toque or run a sweltering restaurant kitchen. They are home cooks writ large, like Rachael Ray, or beautiful people like Padma Lashkmi (who, incidentally, posed in the buff for the May issue of Allure magazine). Should we care about this? Not necessarily. Even stars like Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse, both of whom started out wielding tongs, have grown beyond those roots, so much so that it's a lucky exception rather than the rule to be served food cooked by one of these marquee names, should you visit one of their restaurants.

Do the more pedestrian backgrounds of Food Network's non-chefs make them more accessible? Judging by the success of their cookbooks, the answer's a definite yes.

According to this list, the top ten bestselling cookbooks of 2008 includes Food Network hosts Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen. Does their lack of culinary school and restaurant training make their culinary creations any easier to recreate at home? Not really. Whatever their background, Food Network personalities have an army of on-set assistants and food stylists, people whose full-time job is to make every plate look perfect.

Speaking of cookbooks, what about the charge that cooking shows act as 30- or 60-minute commercials for the hosts' cookbooks? If you want to save $30 or so you can usually get those same recipes for free on the Food Network's own website, but there are some trade-offs to consider. Do you really want to boot up your PC and printer every time you want to try a new recipe? Or cart the laptop down to the kitchen and risk spilling balsamic vinegar on the keyboard?

Also, relying on online recipes can be a bit of a crapshoot. While there's a veritable cornucopia of good, professionally tested recipes for free in places like the Food Network site and, the online home of Conde Nast cooking mags Gourmet and Bon Appetit, there's also a lot of unedited misinformation out there. Many recipe-hosting sites let users post recipes without screening them, so if the poster mistyped "4 cups" of water instead of "1/4 cup," you'll have no way of knowing about the mistake until your dish has turned into soup.

As for SmartMoney's gripes about the sometimes questionable usefulness recipes generated by celeb non-chef food personalities, that's a bit of a red herring. Earlier in my career I was sent the proof of a to-be-published (and not to be named here) cookbook I was reviewing. The name attached to the work was both chef and celebrity, in that order. The book included some fun tidbits about the history of ingredients or traditional dishes, but as an instructive guide for the home cook, it was preposterous. A recipe for veal cutlets accompanied by potatoes and veggies stretches for almost five full pages and includes a whopping 44 ingredients. Other recipes call for smoking your own mushrooms and making your own sausage.

I suspect that this particular cookbook was not meant to be instructive as much as subtly discouraging; no mere mortal with an ordinary sized kitchen and a "staff" of family members pressed into service could reasonably hope to turn out these multifaceted, deeply complex dishes. If you wanted to taste the master chef's cooking, you'd better just to make a reservation at one of his vaunted eateries. Clearly, it's not just the new generation of Food Network hosts guilty of treating their time in the public eye as a commercial for other parts of their empires.
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