The end of an era: The Celebrity Chef

What being a chef entails has changed beyond recognition in the last century. Cooking used to be rough, dirty and blue collar. Black smoke from charcoal fires filled kitchens; thugs, criminals and other misfits made the ranks.
The movement called “Nouvelle Cuisine” changed the landscape of the industry. Chefs put their name on the restaurants’ door and suddenly you wouldn’t go to eat at ‘L’Auberge du Pont Collognes’ but instead at ‘Paul Bocuse’.
This movement quickly expanded to several countries: Arzak o Berasategui in Spain; Marco Pierre White in the UK, and so on.
The introduction of new technologies changed the everyday work: from woodfire to inductions and water baths. Simultaneously, the media (cooking shows, reality TV, etc.) oriented the aspirations of chefs and caricatured several aspects of food and professional kitchens culture. 
The Celebrity-Chef was born.

TV shows, trendy restaurants and cookbooks multiplied. The search for differentiation and the next hit has created an arms race for creativity. The codified system of recipes that had characterised cuisine since Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire (published in 1903) gave way to the research for new techniques and ever more exotic ingredients.
Innovative high-end restaurants created R&D labs, and food ideation moved from being the job of the Head Chef to a multidisciplinary team effort.
Cooks and scientists’ collaborations are now a well-known formula. For example, Heston Blumenthal corresponded with Harold McGee (who also worked with Ferran Adria) at the start and with Professor Spence from Oxford University afterwards.

Chefs and industrial designers’ collaborations have become familiar as well: GIFRE works with the Rocca brothers, Crucial Detail with Alinea. Historians and other professions are also occasionally added to the mix.
These collaborations are most effective when they operate over an extended period, giving an opportunity for deeper explorations of each other’s discipline and a real exchange of ideas.

As the industry continues to develop, a problem has arisen: a high-quality creative team working solely on developing a dish for a handful of customers is expensive. In turn, high staff turnover impedes growth due to the increasingly complex nature of the job. Small margins in the high-end restaurant industry and already overworked staff mean that there isn’t a lot of margin to manoeuvre. 
Passion and love for the job are excellent drivers for the young and ambitious but, over the long term, the talented will only stay as long as they can grow. Limiting the association of employees to their ideas, by channelling everything through their bosses name, creates a countdown on their will to remain within a company.

Outside of the kitchens, the idea of a lone genius coming up with far-fetched ideas by himself is gone. We understand that innovation happens in teams with mixed personalities and expertises; yet, the ‘celebrity chef’ brands have avoided the transition. Examples abound of chef’s marketing themselves as the single force behind their companies. Simultaneously, numerous articles criticise bosses who are never in their restaurants and instead spend all their time starring in TV shows.
On the development side, the model of a single manager that acts as a tastemaker (a literally one in this case) is outdated. History is full of examples where underdog products, rejected by the traditional tastemakers, went on to become massive hits.

Out of this challenge, hybrid models have begun to appear. Perhaps the most well-known would be the Nordic Food Lab. There, the team works towards solutions for global problems, such as food security, backed by philanthropic funding. This research generates new ideas and develops knowledge that can be applied to the core business by a development lab (Noma’s test kitchen). It is worth noting that, the company’s image has moved away from the ‘celebrity chef’ towards a brand closely linked to a wider philosophy: New Nordic Cuisine.

“Empty labels”, where actions don’t match words, are starting to struggle across industries. Values drive Millennials substantially more than previous generations. The gap between companies who embrace the new demands and those lagging behind will become more apparent.
For food business to survive the next decades, they will have to review their models. Branding should not cap employees’ incentives. ‘Emotional connection to customers’ can be drawn from a company’s mission (and actions) matching their belief systems, which can also function to attract other types of funding and partnerships.

The time has come for the restaurant industry (and other creative industries) to move to the next stage. Away from the blue collar worker, past the celebrity chef, and into the Philosophy-Brand.

At Conductal we develop processes and cultures for organisations to thrive in complex and changing environments

Daniel Ospina

Director at Conductal

Co-Founder and Steering Group lead Crossmodalism

Associate Fellow at CenSes, Institute of Philosophy, University of London

Experience Designer in Residence, Crossmodal Research Laboratory, University of Oxford.