Shameless Nostalgia: Rise of the Celebrity Chef

Written by Popular Culture, Television

Food Network changed the way we’re entertained by food and those who cook it.

In 1993, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld and Providence Journal president Trygve Myrhen changed the way Americans relate to food. They took the cooking show and gave it its own network, much in the same way MTV gave music videos their own network a decade earlier. This was the Food Network, then called TV Food Network. Until FN carved out its place in the cable TV landscape, cooking shows were some of the most sleepy, low-rent shows on the airwaves. They lived on public broadcasting channels and community access, creeping in on Sunday afternoons or getting stapled to the inoffensive grab bag of daytime talk shows. To be fair, Food Network didn’t change this model very much in its early years, but it hit on something big by the mid-1990s.

The celebrity chef became the center of Food Network’s approach almost immediately, but it found a new species of celebrity chef in Emeril Lagasse. After spending a few years hosting his very traditional cooking show Essence of Emeril, Lagasse launched Emeril Live on Food Network in 1997. Instead of positioning its host as the sedate expert cooking on a quiet set with all the pop of an 8th grade math class, Emeril Live made its star a shouting, boisterous populist with a house band and a true recklessness with his ingredients. Emeril Live was all catchphrases (Bam!, Kick It Up A Notch! and even Pork Fat Rules!) and indulgence. It was so very ’90s that it hurt. His house band, fronted by Doc Gibbs, was basically a Dave Matthews Band sound-alike, all adult contemporary tunes and remarkably beige multiculturalism. It was optimistic and suggested that everyone in the audience was special.

The cult of Emeril was pretty ubiquitous in those days. His Essence spice blend adorned the shelves of grocery stores, malls and suburban homes across the nation. Emeril was even parodied on Futurama with the 31st century celebrity chef, Elzar. Emeril lived comfortably on Food Network for a decade before Live was canceled, picked up a new home on Fine Living and then the Cooking Channel.

Though Lagasse’s own star waned, the shift he represented persists to this day. Food Network transformed the celebrity chef into cartoons like Emeril, supplanting the grandparental likes of Julia Child and Jeff Smith with a seemingly limitless supply of Guy Fieris. The outsized celebrity chef became such a recognizable trope by the end of the 1990s that the early part of the next decade even saw the rise of Anthony Bourdain, a guy whose public persona is pretty much based on a rejection of Food Network’s menagerie of cooking goofballs. Bourdain even went so far as to concoct a one-sided rivalry with infinitely peppy Food Network mainstay Rachael Ray. Say what you will about the grating enthusiasm of preening suburbanites like Ray, Sandra Lee and Paula Deen, their prevalence paved the way for calculated iconoclasts like Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey.

The success of Food Network and the way it solidified the image of the celebrity chef in our time, like so many cultural developments, really needed the unique atmosphere of the 1990s in order to happen. It was an era when the confluence of material wealth, multicultural outreach and media explosiveness created the perfect conditions for an interest in gourmet food to blossom. The ’90s are when supermarkets started building dedicated wine sections, when fast food familiarized Americans with the terms “asiago” and “latte.”

Today’s food trends fit more with our time, focusing on localism, sustainability and health than the indulgences of the ’90s. That’s only natural because we’ve been living in the shadow of poverty and doom for so long. It’s important to remember, though, that before we had wet dreams about fair-trade dates wrapped in farmer’s market bacon, we learned to love the first generation of food porn that proved to millions of Stouffers-eating Americans that food like bacon-wrapped dates are even a thing.