“Good chefs should be celebrities.” So began L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold last night at the Skirball Center. To his left were four chefs who are more than a little familiar with the advantages and trials of fame: Nancy Silverton, Ludo “Chef of the Year” Lefebvre, Susan Feniger, and Top Chef-winner Ilan Hall. All agreed that while television has had some negative impact on cooking, chefs deserve fame when they strike a chord with diners like, as Gold mentioned, with Puck’s smoked salmon pizza or Roy Yamaguchi’s gyoza. Enjoy some of the gems dropped during this hour-long panel in our recap below, including a hearty diss or two on The Next Food Network Star, why Rick Bayless might have shilled for Burger King, and whether The Gorbals was intended to distance Hall from his new-found fame.
On Julia Child
Feniger: “She was magnificent…warm, funny, smart, and could drink us all under the table.”
On Wolfgang Puck
Silverton: “You knew that he had made it when a sitcom could mention Spago and everyone in the country knew what that was.”
On first time T.V. appearances
Silverton: “It was unscripted…and I had to teach [Julia Child] how to bake bread…and they stopped me every three words. I was covering the bowl, I was looking up, I was looking down. I had a full loaf of bread out of the oven and it was ice cold and I had to say it smelled so good…I walked away and said I would never ever do it again.”
Why Top Chef?
Hall: “I’d heard it was the one that’s not embarrassing to go on.”
Ludo: “I was on Top Chef Masters two times and I lost two times…They made me look like a crazy French guy, like an asshole, and I’m not.”
On Ilan Hall’s quick rise to fame
Hall: “It happened very quickly…I was a line cook in New York. Encouraged by my friends, I sent in a video audition for a show I’d never seen and six weeks later I was on it. ..it was so instant, I didn’t really understand.”
On the sudden realization that you’re famous
Hall: “I started going on television…and being in an open kitchen on 17th and Irving Place [Hall worked at New York’s Casa Mono when his season of Top Chef aired], it became very apparent how popular the show was.”
Ludo: “I’ve worked in the best restaurants in France…and now I’m known for my chicken ball…I’m an actor, every night I act…(laughs) sometimes I don’t cook at the restaurant, I’m just taking pictures [with fans].”
How television has hurt cooking
Silverton: “They wanna be stars and that is not a reason to cook. People are getting in the business for all the wrong reasons…”
Silverton: “[Today] there’s so many people on the cooking shows that have nothing to teach…”
Feniger: “Television has hurt our industry…Next Food Network Star takes people with limited experience and puts them in the position of being…” Silverton: “Food experts…”
Feniger: “Now it’s not really about learning….you’d learn when you watched Julia.”
On Rick Bayless shilling for Burger King
Feniger: “I don’t think Rick was that happy he made that decision…I think he hated it and would never do it again…chefs do things for different reasons…I did a commercial for Crisco and made more money than I did in 20 years.”
On perceptions in Ludo’s native France
Ludo: “Marc Meneau is very pissed at me because of my tattoos and piercings…but he recently called to congratulate me…which is something, that a chef in the middle of Burgundy knows what’s happening in America.”
Was The Gorbals, Ilan Hall’s Scottish-Jewish pub, designed to distance him from his newfound celebrity?
Hall: “I made a very selfish restaurant. Something my friends and I would go to… that isn’t glamorous…I was given the ability to do it, and people would come, so it wasn’t just stuck in the back of a Section 8 hotel housing unit and I’d just be sitting there by myself.”
Why Los Angeles?
Feniger: “What an incredible restaurant city L.A. is…we always call each other about everything…it’s a wonderfully close community.”
Hall: “It’s just the weather…no, I think L.A. has such a great scene…the chefs in L.A. are so warm to each other…not like New York.”
Silverton: “[In 1985 in New York] in winter the only thing you could find was iceberg lettuce and some old carrots…it made no sense to open there, as much as we loved Manhattan.”
Feniger: “Keep your eye on the restaurant business…that’s my motto…[fame is] extra and it might not last, it will do what it does, so just keep your eye on your business.”