Something important happened to my former profession in 2007. I’m still unsure what, exactly — but there was a shift, the world of food tilting on its axis.
Dining rooms were busy with ever more food-obsessed, better-informed customers. Wall Street had yet to implode, so private parties and “whale” wine buyers — customers who’d spend $150 on food and $10,000 on wine — were still in loud, proud abundance. Celebrity chefs who’d made their reputations on the haute side moved to capture the middle ground as well, expanding into branded burger joints. As with haute couture, those who couldn’t afford the full ride could now at least buy the T-shirt.
“Top Chef” was a big hit for Bravo, making reality show contestants who could actually cook into household names. On the other hand, “Hell’s Kitchen,” with its cast of mostly delusional nitwits unfit to dunk onion rings for a living, was also a ratings juggernaut. The hugely talented Gordon Ramsay tormented his stunned charges like a carnival barker in some cruel and prolonged culinary version of “Dunk Bozo,” achieving a level of success playing dumb on TV that he never could have equaled as simply a prodigiously talented Michelin-starred chef….
Blogs about food became more important. Few writers of books, magazines or newspaper columns could compete with, say, a lonely, Vietnam-based food nerd who’d spent the last 10 years eating at every food stall in Ho Chi Minh City, exhaustively documenting every mouthful.
The best news of 2007 was that chefs, as a social class somehow empowered by the strange and terrible glare of celebrity, were finally free to rid themselves of the time-honored dictum of “the customer is always right.” If experience had taught chefs anything, it was that this is very rarely the case. Chefs were now trusted enough to persuade customers to try what they themselves loved to eat. Hence the hooves and snouts and oily little fishes that increasingly popped up on menus. This trend alone made up for the bad — a momentum that will, I hope, carry us through the tough times of the present.