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Why celebrity chefs should fear fame

Today's lesson: Paula Deen, whose career has melted down like butter in a hot pan

Chris Jones

July 7, 2013

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In the annals of celebrity, chefs are relative newcomers. Some date stars of the kitchen back to Bartolomeo Scappi, Renaissance chef to Pope Pius IV, or at least to the 19th-century Frenchman Marie-Antoine Careme of grand cuisine fame. When Julia Child started appearing on American television in the 1960s, she (along with her terrifying British doppelganger, Fanny Cradock) was trailblazing in that her singular personality became as famous as her French cooking.

These days, of course, celebrity chefs are ubiquitous: Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Nigella Lawson, Guy Fieri, Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay — almost as many names as there are slots on cable TV to fill. But there's a significant difference between these names and Julia Child. Child (whose life is the subject of a play, "To Master the Art," to be remounted in Chicago this fall) was an individualist. She wasn't the head of an empire or partner to many stakeholders; she learned quickly that it paid more just to be herself.

By contrast, today's celebrity chefs are multihyphenate businesspeople, each targeted by their handlers and partners to a precise slice of the demographic. A recent, schadenfreude-driven visit to the much-maligned eatery Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in New York revealed a stunning array of enterprises and endorsements on display ("Guy's Stuff," they call it) from the bleached blond Californian who started out selling pretzels from his bike but now has come to symbolize dives, drive-ins and other Ameri-food-cana. Each of Fieri's six restaurants (there's a new one to come in Las Vegas), the books, the grill tools, the hoodies, all are designed to promote one image: irreverent, male, fun, rockin', down-home, kitschy. One could do the same exercise with any of these other chefs. Each has their market.

Which brings us to Paula Deen, whose career has melted down over these last several days like butter in a hot pan.

In the face of a scandal involving her admitted past use of a racial epithet, among other serious charges, Deen has lost both her life-changing slot on the Food Network and more endorsement deals and lucrative branding partnerships than most of us even knew she had: Kmart, Sears, Home Depot, Target, Caesars Entertainment (the owner of Harrah's casinos), QVC, Smithfield Foods, Random House. Each day seemed to bring a new corporation that had weighed Deen's tarnished blue-collar brand in the face of public opinion, plus a TV apology widely seen as somewhere between unhinged and inadequate, and they had come to the same inevitable conclusion: Deen was toxic toast.

The charges against Deen are serious, singular and wider ranging than her admitted past use of racist terms, and there now is clear video evidence that, at a minimum, she sanctioned an offensive climate of racial joking, separation and condescension of staggering insensitivity and ineptitude. She was no innocent.

So nothing here is intended to diminish their import, even if some (including former President Jimmy Carter) have made the case that Deen has apologized sincerely and paid a high price for her mistakes. But it's also true her self-destruction points to a particular vulnerability of the new breed of celebrity chef: disgruntled employees emerging from a workplace that the celebrity chef allowed to rage out of control. Deen's troubles began with a lawsuit by a former employee at one of her restaurants, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House in Savannah, Ga. No doubt other star chefs started to worry about how underlings could take them down too.

It's true that movie stars have retinues, and personal assistants and nannies have been the source of celebrity distress. But chefs have morphed, relatively recently, from workers and managers into stars and personalities, and they now find themselves caught between very different cultures. Their main way to exploit their fame is not to record a new album or go out on tour but to open a new restaurant. And because even the hardest-working celebrity chefs can't be everywhere at once, they are, in essence, forced to delegate their own image. At Uncle Bubba's, it was hard to see where Deen's personality ended and that of her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers, began.

This need for delegation makes chefs distinct from other artistic celebrities: Yo-Yo Ma does not open cello-playing factories; Renee Fleming does not hire a manager to perform arias from her own recipes; Tony Bennett does not put other people in charge of replicating his live performances while he's on a different coast.

Moreover, relatively few people work for actors and musicians. Even a famous comic like Jerry Seinfeld typically gets by with three or four managers and personal assistants, whom they usually can trust.

Running any business brings dangers. But running a kitchen is especially tricky because the culture of kitchens is famously loose and abusive, as Ramsay's "Hell's Kitchen" episodes attest.

Indeed, some chefs have become famous by, in essence, showcasing their own workplace tyranny, a tactic beloved by TV networks due to the inherent dramatic heat and potential for storytelling therein. In fact, the idea of trial by fire at the hands of a master has become a key part of many celebrity-chef narratives. The sizzle of a steak on the grill has dramatic properties but makes better TV when you also feel the heat in the cheeks of the humiliated sous-chef.

But that's a dangerous business, as Deen and her partners have found out. The humble employee can get litigious or chatty or both, and humiliation to build character often does not mesh with workplace legalities. It's one thing to have a tantrum in a Hollywood trailer; those on the star's payroll typically just roll their eyes. But have a fit inside a big, busy workplace full of low-paid workers and it's a whole different souffle, chef.

Watching the Deen affair these last couple of weeks, it also has been staggering how ill-equipped she has seemed when it comes to stemming her own destruction. She seems to have very little introspection or self-awareness. Her other problem is that while a Lindsay Lohan or a Roman Polanski can, in effect, change the narrative of personal disaster by turning in a great new performance or directing a potent new movie, Deen does not have those tools at her disposal. What is she going to do? Come up with a game-changing potato pie?

It's not going to happen for a woman whose very fame was built on the approachability of her food. Bizarre as it may seem, celebrity chefs are more dependent on their image than actors, rockers and directors. Their art does not morph as easily.

This has not been a good couple of weeks for celebrity chefs. Nigella Lawson was advised by the British tabloids to dump husband Charles Saatchi for the sake of her U.S. TV career, after an image of an enraged Saatchi with his hand around Lawson's throat (apparently amid a marital argument) went viral. Brian Malarkey, Lawson's fellow judge on ABC's "The Taste," said that the scandal could compromise Lawson's image as "America's sweetheart." Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Daily News said it had uncovered racist tweets created by one of the contestants on "MasterChef."

Such gotchas are, for the sure, part of the price of chefs' new-found, hard-won fame. And celebrity chefs being engulfed by scandal is hardly new.

In 1976, Cradock's then-famous show was dropped by the BBC after a notorious filmed segment in which she lambasted and insulted an amateur English cook who had a won a contest. Celebrity chefs walk a fine line: They are expected to be experts and artists but not to humiliate us with their skills, because we all like to think we can cook.

But aside from a useful reminder for celebrity-craving chefs about how fast fame can blow up in your face, l'affair Paula also offers a cautionary tale for newly minted celeb chefs about paying more attention to what is going on inside their businesses, even if it means one less book or appearance. Deen, no doubt, has image-doctors now: In her case, they have arrived too late.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib