What sinister historical forces have converged to create the freakish likes of Sandra Lee, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Jamie Oliver? As with so much else in the history of dining, we can trace the rise of celebrity chefs to the early 1800s, when he was transformed from a humble artisan into a revered artist — the modern Prometheus.
Of course, there have always been great cooks throughout history, but they stayed out of the limelight, as anonymous tradesman in the sooty kitchen. Since the Middle Ages meals were, first and foremost, about extravagant presentation, and the most celebrated figure was the maître d’hôtel, or steward — the front man who designed all the special effects of a banquet. It was he who chose the dishes, oversaw the decoration of the table, arranged the entertainment and choreographed the guests.
The most famous of these impresarios was François Vatel, who in the mid-1600s stage-managed spectacular dinners for his master, the Count de Condé. Vatel claimed immortality in 1671 when — while hosting a feast for 2,000 people in honor of the Sun King, Louis XIV — he was informed that the fish for the meal would not arrive on time, so he committed suicide, becoming France’s first true martyr to gastronomy. (One version of the story goes that his body was found by a servant who was rushing to tell him that the fish had actually arrived. History repeated itself in 2003, when French chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself when told that his restaurant would lose one of its three Michelin stars).
This process has led to “the chef’s reign of terror,” where diners are a passive audience awaiting the whims of hot-house prima donnas.
The meteoric rise of the chef began with a shift in dining etiquette that made the quality of food paramount and gave the kitchen control over its presentation. Under the traditional procedure, known as service à la française, guests would be ushered into a banquet hall to find the tables already set with symmetrically placed dishes. Most guests would serve themselves, and what one ate often depended on where one sat. In the early 1800s, hosts began to change the procedure to the one we experience at restaurants today — service à la russe, where waiters served meals in a series of distinct courses. This new style had been pioneered in restaurants, although it was named after the Russian ambassador to Paris who used it at an official function in 1810. It provided a better chance for dishes to remain hot by the time they reached the table, whereas under the old system, food was generally lukewarm at best.
With service à la russe, the chef instantly gained in status. No matter how luxurious the dining room, the design of the food was paramount. Chefs even determined the pace of the entire meal, sending out courses when they, not the diner, was ready. The logical result over time is the modern “tasting menu,” a now-universal fad whereby diners abandon all choice to the genius of the kitchen. This process, notes food historian Cathy Kaufman, has led to “the chef’s reign of terror,” where diners are a passive audience awaiting the whims of hot-house prima donnas. (Kaufman also mourns the communal element of service à la française, where guests relied on one another for convivial opinions on the dishes and to pass the plates around.)
Probably the first chef to really take advantage of his new power was a certain Antonin Carême (1784-1833), who leapt onto the Paris stage in the early 1800s as a young and stylish figure in a jaunty white cap. Although he worked only for private patrons, he wrote the first cookbooks that described haute cuisine as a science, with its own coherent rules for sauces, soups, meats, pastries, and vegetables harmonized like a Mozart symphony. Carême would become as mythic a figure in the 19th century as Vatel had been in the 16th: He was a freak product of the Revolution, a man who was born into a poor family of 25 children and worked his way up from restaurant kitchens to fame. In classic romantic fashion, he even died of consumption, but really (says the admiring novelist Alexander Dumas) he was “killed by his own genius.”
Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst, “Writing Out of the Kitchen: Carême and the Invention of French Cuisine,” Gastronomica, vol 3, no 3, 2003, 40-51; Kaufman, Cathy K., “Structuring the Meal: the Revolution of service à la russe,” in Walker, Harlan (ed.), The Meal: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, (Oxford, 2002).