The Spectacle of Leadership

In fetishizing the heat of the kitchen, the circus continues to sell bread

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Illustration by Jessie Cacciola

If a restaurant can afford to hire a PR company, does it need the press? Maybe only in the state of competition that is New York City or Los Angeles. Is the restaurant, then, any more deserving of attention than one that can’t afford representation, or one that chooses to spend money on PR rather than fix the fan in their walk-in?

These are things we, as journalists, should be asking ourselves. Journalists do not exist to collect low-hanging leads. We are here to uncover the very ones that are hard to access, that the general public might otherwise fail to see. So while I am thankful for writers who are sharing their struggles with access — for reasons that include such things as language barriers — I’m just not interested in hearing this as a reason to continue to rely on sources that come easy. It is our job to earn the trust of the sources we need to hear from, not stroke the squeaky wheels that already have grease. But food blogs have become grounded in the credit of the celebrity chefs they choose to partner with, and this is a choice.

Is a leader someone leading the conversation about the kitchen, or the one leading the kitchen? Is a leader the person making sure your night runs smoothly, or the one who is distracting that person with incessant narcissism, who is always available to comment on a story? This is how a restaurant runs that can afford a PR company, and it happens to be an excellent metaphor for how any organization runs that relies on one. We have fetishized the heat of the kitchen, whatever that kitchen may be, but those who remain in one have very little interest in fame.

In these restaurants, the chef has very often graduated him or herself from the labor of the kitchen, whether or not their title still reads chef or chef-owner. They are now the figure head. The sous chef is now, for all intents and purposes, the chef. Or there might be that odd title of executive chef, which I’m not sure everyone understands. It means they’re the chef.

Much in the way that that dreadful Bon Appetit video montage showed just how much the staff relied on Sohla El-Waylly for her knowledge of the material, the restaurant chef, too, relies heavily on their often uncredited staff. Yes, cooks sign up to work for a restaurant. Yes, they will often sign a contract, much like in the tech world, that states that anything created on site is intellectual property of the restaurant. (They will often also sign a non-compete agreement, which makes any move to open their own restaurant more difficult unless they relocate.) But when that recipe becomes a reason why the restaurant is successful, or is featured in a book, the line to draw is left to the celebrity chef. Very few, certainly not none, take this opportunity to credit the source. The source will rarely ask for it — whether they don’t think they should have to, don’t want to, or don’t care. Writers can also feel free to continue requesting comments from the food personality, just don’t call them the chef.

Every time I watch one of those chef shows, I irk at how much the camera crew is in the way, as if the restaurant is a studio; of how the kitchen staff must move their schedule around and work late to prepare for the mise (and many times, the final product) for the shoot, for the chef to walk in for a few hours on camera and then leave again.

Before we argue about representation, which is absolutely (and unfortunately) something a restaurant in New York City or Los Angeles must consider before opening, there is a point when fame no longer helps the restaurant itself, when it works to build the celebrity of its chef for his or her own benefits — for the guest judge spots, for the cookbook deals; none of these things are needed to run a successful restaurant, if that is what they wish to do.

Julia Child knew who she was. She was a student and a teacher, a cookbook writer and a television personality, and a great one. She didn’t have anyone in a restaurant who depended on her, and she didn’t claim to be running that restaurant simultaneously. I am all for those who would like to be the next food personality, but you must admit to having left your kitchen in the hands of someone else, someone I hope you trust and respect enough to run it in your absence. There’s room for both of you to represent the work you are actually doing. That means crediting your sous chefs when they give you a recipe for your next book. It means including them in the demos and the shoots they helped to set up — even if only by mention, since they are busy making sure the night runs smoothly.

The fact that we are debating about any of this tells us more about how we view those who are in charge and those who work beneath them, how little we are willing to vet those we frame as experts before we praise them, before it’s too late to take them down. Maybe the fame-seekers were always this way. Maybe we, the press, are the only ones who can give them what they need. Maybe they weren’t created, but enabled.

The truth is that working in restaurants — much like working in a hospital, or in government, or anywhere that requires a consistently sound mind—is not nearly as exciting as we make it out to be. More to the point, working in a successful one is not, as any successful relationship is not to the tabloid. A dysfunctional one is. It becomes our colosseum, our circus with bread, our distraction from reality.

You can’t, to any significant degree, fake competency in a hospital, but somehow we’re able to fake competency almost anywhere else. If only the job of leader were seen as the truly boring job that it is. We might actually get some work done.

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Jessie Cacciola is a food operator & writer in New York. She runs a research site for restaurants & those who inspect them at Grade Pending Press.

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