James Wolcott on Celeb Chef Scandals

©ourtesy of James Wolcott Photo Illustration by Darrow

Pictured here: Nigella Lawson, Guy Fieri, Paula Deen, and Gordon Ramsay

Recipes for Disaster - James Wolcott on Celeb Chef Scandals

“It’s Getting Hot in Here! Food Network host Guy Fieri’s take down by The New York Times, Paula Deen’s blithe racism, Nigella Lawson’s domestic split—culinary controversy has been the order of the day. But some scandals are more digestible than others, and the explosions from Gordon Ramsay seem only to feed his fame”

Whom the gods would destroy, they first render plump and juicy. That is how foodies are brought down to earth. Last year it was Guy Fieri, the spiky-haired, garishly tattooed showman chef and host of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, who found himself served on the sacrificial altar: glazed with honey, decorated with pineapple medallions, and then devilishly sliced up by the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, whose review of Fieri’s Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar tourist trap in Times Square was the Schadenfreude dance party of the season. “Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” asked Wells, like a prosecuting attorney with Maalox lips. “And when we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?” The destructive impact was seismic, amplified by the excitable Internet into a cause célèbre. It was considered by many a deserving, scathing comeuppance for Fieri, who had parlayed his higher-octane Barney Rubble TV personality into a schlock canteen intended to fleece the innocent sheep already paying extortionate prices for Broadway musicals. At least Hooters has, well, hooters.

Then it was Paula Deen’s turn in the barrel. It wasn’t her lo-falutin meals but her ungoverned mouth that turned her into the punch line of a national laugh track. Her gingerbread world collapsed after the leak of a deposition involving a lawsuit lodged against her and her brother, Earl (Bubba) Hiers, by a former employee alleging racial and sexual discrimination in their Savannah, Georgia, restaurants. Deen was asked by the plaintiff’s lawyer if she had ever used the n-word, to which she fatefully replied, “Yes, of course.” That “of course” was her undoing. So many assumptions were packed into those two little words, none of them pretty. If Deen had couched her admission in a cheese-drenched macaroni bed of regret, offering something along the lines of “I’m not proud of this, but there were times when that inexcusable word escaped my lips,” she might have received leniency from the swift-to-condemn media chorale always eager to swoop. But the blithe matter-of-factness of “of course,” combined with the ditsy doo-dah of old-plantation romance wafting through the rest of her remarks, indicated that there wasn’t much depth to her reflecting pool. Deen reinforced this clueless sense of being her own worst advocate when she went on the Today show to plead her case and attempt damage control by uttering self-exculpatory inanities such as “I is what I is.” That kind of folksy talk might have made Deen a suitable running mate for Fred Thompson in 2008, but we’ve moved on since then and demand a higher quality of corn pone.

Heavy is the head that wears the hair extensions, and when a beloved southern matriarch falters, there are those who refuse to forsake her—people who don’t take it kindly when you mess with Mama. The New York Times ran an article about the loyal pilgrims lining up outside her Savannah restaurant the Lady & Sons to pay homage to the buffet. Others did more than shuffle their feet in the waiting line to mobilize support. Irate over Deen’s shabby treatment by Corporate America, which couldn’t distance itself fast enough from her (along with the Food Network, Walmart, Target, Sears, J. C. Penney, and Smithfield Foods were among those that gave her the hefty heave-ho), a hotel auditor and devoted fan named John Schmitt devised a creative protest intended to send those executive-suite executioners a sticky message. He took to Facebook to urge his fellow Deenosaurs (my paleontological term, not his) to mail in empty butter wrappers as a show of support. He had originally considered deploying actual bars of butter, but realized that it would goo up the postal system and, worse, would be a waste of good butter, a sacrilege among Deen’s disciples. For no one has done more than she to restore the honor and glory of this golden dairy product in the decades since Marlon Brando defiled butter’s good name with his rutting Method acting in Last Tango in Paris. Schmitt’s campaign wasn’t just a protest; it was kind of a crowd-sourced conceptual-art piece. “The butter itself is Paula, and these wrappers are void of butter just like these companies are void of Paula,” an overhelpful reporter explained to Schmitt. Paula is butter, the symbol and incarnation of a throwback style of southern comfort food that builds a fleshly moat around every big eater—a buffer zone between him or her and the fast-whizzing world. Deen’s trademark dishes, such as her bread pudding made of Krispy Kreme doughnuts cut into cubes, recall the grand tradition of good-ol’-boy cuisine that helped Elvis Presley keel over at Graceland. Rich in sugar, flour, and nostalgia, they slow down the metabolism and thought processes, inducing a semiconscious sloth bliss state that is deaf and blind to the entreaties of Barack and Michelle Obama as they extend a head of broccoli as America’s last hope. A true American entrepreneur, Deen excelled in playing it both ways, promoting a diet conducive to diabetes and then pushing diabetes medicine. “Deen announced that she had Type 2 diabetes [she had been given the diagnosis several years before] and in the same moment became a well-paid spokesperson for Novo Nordisk’s Victoza, a drug to combat the disease,” Dana Goodyear observed on The New Yorker’s Web site. It was a brazen hypocrisy she could sustain as long as the grandma façade of kindly beneficence held steady. Now Deen must settle for being the culture heroine of the Gone-with-the-Wind’ers: according to Public Policy Polling, she is now more popular among Republicans in her home state of Georgia than the late Martin Luther King Jr., not exactly the kind of data point that will register well with prospective sponsors. I was in a New Jersey shopping-mall store where Paula Deen eyewear was heavily discounted and tucked to the side, as if stashed in shame, though I may be anthropomorphizing.

Confession time: I never watched Paula Deen whip up a batch of hush puppies smothered in fondue, or whatever it was she did on the Food Network, and not because I’m some snobbish New Yorker who thinks he’s “too good” for the likes of this chicken plucker. I’ve just never understood the voyeur appeal of watching celebrity chefs slaving in a studio kitchen to an artificial clock unless they possess a superlative narrative gift, as Julia Child did, with her buoy-bell voice. (Competition shows such as Top Chef and Iron Chef America are different—they have a more samurai flavor.) Nor do I find it a turn-on to watch people make a big deal out of dining, nibbling, licking, and savoring the succulent juices of whatever it is they’re foisting into their maws. All I could think of during the maraschino-cherry, honey-dripping mouth orgy scene at the refrigerator in 9 1/2 Weeks was “Next time just order a banana split.” Even so, I think we can all agree that Food Network enchantress Nigella Lawson elevated the art of taste testing into a classy plateau of erotica, dipping and dabbing her finger into something creamy or chocolaty and bringing it to her Pre-Raphaelite lips with life-christening élan. I’ve never seen Nigella Lawson bite into a strawberry, and yet I can picture it in my imagination, in slow motion, like an epiphany. Where Paula Deen basks in the populist image of down-home, countrified goodness, Lawson luxuriates in the self-anointed status of “domestic goddess” (How to Be a Domestic Goddess was the title of her 2001 best-seller), appearing to sail through temperate climes as a galleon of bountifulness. “Appearing” is the key word. America fields its own domestic goddess, of course, but Martha Stewart has always looked able to karate-chop her way through an ambush squad of process servers, whereas Lawson’s personal history closets a shattered mirror of sorrow and suffering. As the columnist and novelist Allison Pearson wrote in The Telegraph, “Having lost both her mother and younger sister to cancer, Lawson then had to watch her husband, the journalist John Diamond, die of throat cancer in 2001. A widow at 41, she was left with two small children and a sense of life’s darkness. It was hard, she said, not to believe there was ‘a sniper in the garden picking off everyone you love.’ ”

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