The Charismatic Chef

I am surprised that chefs do not regularly take curtain calls. After a final spoonful of (chocolate bacon) panna cotta that jiggles like Lucia di Lammermoor’s “Il dolce suono,” diners should bravo the chef into postprandial ecstasy; when polishing off a plate of hormone-free lamb-balls, the modern eater must rise and applaud. The charismatic chef deserves, no, demands praise. His food is an extension of his irresistible and indefinable and authentic personality.

Reading Zachary Woolfe’s piece in the Sunday Times, “A Gift From the Musical Gods,” I was impressed by how well his commentary on classical music charisma describes the economy of fine dining. Today, there are two types of successful chefs: the skilled technician, operating behind the scenes, and the celebrity chef mogul industry giant whose magnetism gives electric motion to a personal brand. If there is a Mary Callas of American cooking, it is Thomas Keller, a man whose “Oysters and Pearls” would send a dining room into bivalvular orgy—mouths open to receive Chef Keller’s winsome and terribly genuine “Zen and the Art of Fine Dining” philosophy, anuses expelling a continuous stream of savory tapioca pudding. And if there is a Christian Tetzlaff, Mr. Woolfe’s example of the “technically flawless” but uncharismatic musician, it is Eli Kaimeh, Thomas Keller’s chef de cuisine at Per Se.

Mr. Woolfe identifies a trend in classical music and opera criticism: the continuous usage of the term “charisma,” either as a writerly crutch or the only available descriptor. As Mr. Woolfe admits, “It’s a term used a lot but one too often skimmed over. When an artist is described as charismatic, I know what’s meant. You know what’s meant. But what is meant?” Over the course of his voluminous musings, Mr. Woolfe offers a dizzying array of choices: “Charismatic performers are those whom you simply can’t look away from”; “Charisma requires that you acknowledge a new, larger set of possibilities”; “Charisma operates most strongly on a visual level. . .’You can’t take your eyes off her'”; “Charisma can be exhilarating but also frightening.” We know what charisma is not; it is not “virtuosity or intelligence or perceptive programming.” The Greeks defined it as favor, and the New Testament treats charismata as divine gifts. For Mr. Woolfe, however, Max Weber offers the most satisfying explanation: “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or specifically exceptional powers. These qualities are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Where Mr. Woolfe questions how the charismatic musician leads the masses (as, perhaps, a politician or religious figure), it seems evident to me that the charismatic chef leads his kitchen and the food world at large—his power in the back of the house is to coax forth a cohesive team effort, his power in public is to promulgate a personal ideology, aesthetic or ethical or political, as manifested in his food. Alice Waters is undeniably a charismatic chef. At Chez Panisse, her food embodies and articulates a sustainalocorganic agenda. Todd English, Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay, David Chang—these are charismatic chefs who are charismatic performers, too. Essentially, the celebrity chef’s food performs his personality. Go down on a bowl of Chang’s ramen, visit a Momofuku restaurant—and attend an exhibition of Chang’s postpunk rage.

Instead of explaining what charisma is—exactly—Mr. Woolfe explains why we care. By the end of his essay, Mr. Woolfe has put his finger on the pulse of the classical music world and eloquently distilled its impulses to a single sentence. “Charisma,” Mr. Woolfe writes, “is the essential quality of our moment because it fits so well in a culture in which the connoisseurship of artistic technique—whether singing or instrumental playing or conducting—has declined, but institutions are still seeking new audiences for these complex, demanding art forms.” Replace “singing or instrumental playing or conducting” with “cooking or hospitality or beverage service,” and it suddenly becomes clear why our newest and most dramatically hyped restaurants are such depressing and discomforting places to dine. In order to appeal to a certain unmentionable generation—my own—restaurateurs and chefs have substituted charisma for culinary skill. Among his many definitions, Mr. Woolfe offers another charisma option: “flash, smoke and mirrors.” Read “molecular gastronomy, hipster restaurants and their vacuous politics, and the casual-ing of fine dining.” These “genres” of the contemporary restaurant constitute methods of extracting maximum profit from naive customers, all the while convincing the saps that rudeness, falseness, and pretense are the kinds of dining they actually like. After all, charisma “is a quality that requires no knowledge or preparation”—on the part of the consumer! The newly moneyed (or trust-funded) diner need only seek out the chef with the most charisma, the most personality, and obsequiously latch themselves onto all things chef. Mr. Woolfe refers to an Evgeny Kissing performance—even if you’re totally ignorant about classical music, you can’t help but be mesmerized. Similarly, even if you’re totally ignorant about classical French cuisine, you can’t help but be mesmerized by Michael White’s Mediterraneanish cooking at Ai Fiori or April Bloomfield’s British pub pop at The Breslin.

Whereas Mr. Woolfe seems convinced that the charismatic musician  reveals some essential truth or mystery to the (dangerously) enthralled audience, I am convinced that the charismatic chef, at least in his current incarnation, only obfuscates the truth behind something easily consumable. The problem with the charismatic chef is not his charisma, but how he uses it. With the power to captivate comes the responsibility to promote some greater culinary good other than money making. But Bobby Flay needs his racehorses—check out the front page of the Sunday Sports section—and he needs his applause more than the audience can recognize a substantive performance.

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