I happen to disagree. Whether you find these people to be cultural icons or tacky pseudo-celebrities, they are part of a revolution that created entire new outlets and opportunities in the industry. Their work may not be comparable to the innovation happening in influential kitchens across the country, but they are progressing the culinary world from a different angle.
The fact that we now view food as an art form, a hobby and a source of entertainment rather than a necessary means of survival isn’t because food itself it's progressing — it’s because we’re falling in love with the faces of food on the Food Network.
Snobs and hipsters aside, bringing the culinary world to the masses is actually a good thing. And sure, the Food Network is arguably shifting from blending art and entertainment to creating some hokey, ratings-focused content, but the blame for that shouldn’t be placed on its stars.
Plus, let’s face it: every industry has these celebrity icons. If you’re not bothered by Shaquille O'Neal’s endorsement of countless random products, from Icy Hot to Vitamin Water to Comcast, then you can’t hate on Guy Fieri for doing some promotional publicity.
It’s inevitable that these chefs are going to reap the benefits of their celebrity status and monetize themselves from time to time, but I say they’ve earned it.
Take Rachel Ray, for instance. She’s not just some interchangeable blank canvas for the network to plaster their messages onto; her mother was in the restaurant business for 40 years, and her successful establishment of a culinary empire is the result of her extensive knowledge of and immersion in the industry from a young age. She’s now an Emmy-winning, magazine-owning powerhouse of a woman credited with sparking the nation’s recent obsession with all things edible.
Alton Brown is another shining example of what a food celebrity should be. Admittedly, Cutthroat Kitchen teeters dangerously close to the edge of becoming more of a game show than a food show, but this slight selling out shouldn’t discount his early achievements.
In the James Beard and Peabody Award-winning program, Good Eats, Brown uses his infectious, eclectic personality to dive into the scientific and historic details behind our favorite dishes. With an overload of facts, occasional role-play and a bit of humor, Brown gives viewers a culinary crash course in a way that’s so engaging, it almost feels interactive. If nothing else, Good Eats is incredibly educational — even if you don’t invest the three days and hardware store equipment required to complete his complicated recipes.
Many of these stars even have a deeper purpose behind their brands. Sandra Lee, of Semi-Homemade Cooking, struggled with poverty throughout her childhood, surviving on welfare and using food stamps for meals. Now, Lee channels the lessons of her misfortune to cater to the budget-conscious while repeatedly donating to organizations like Share Our Strength that combat childhood hunger.
So give these guys a break. A mid-range chef making gnocchi with a potato masher duct taped to his hand isn’t my idea of high-quality culinary programming, either. But the stars of the network played a large part in completely revitalizing our fascination with food — and that’s more than most professional chefs can say.