In 1993, food critic Florence Fabricant wrote a story for the New York Times with the headline “The Man Who Would Turn Chefs Into Household Names.” It was a profile written in a skeptical tone on Shep “Supermensch” Gordon depicting his early vision for the quintessential celebrity chef.
“Mr. Gordon contends that once chefs become celebrities outside the gastronomic world,” Fabricant writes, “people will want to buy their food to take home, just the way they now spend money to watch a video, listen to a tape or hang a poster on the wall.”
Suffice to say, Gordon was onto something big. You can blame this guy for the Emeril-branded saucepan hanging in your kitchen. If you are a chef or a musician, this guy is most likely the one responsible for your career choice, since you probably grew up idolizing his friends and clients: Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, just to name a few.
He’s had a documentary made about him directed by Mike Myers, and now he has an autobiography, They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll.
I caught up with the Supermensch himself by phone and we talked about the status of celebrity chefs in 2017, and why chefs should focus on dealing with food issues and not just getting a TV show.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Shep. How are you doing today?
Shep Gordon: I’m doing good. I had a very bizarre day. I had a colonoscopy this morning. [laughs] I was in the back of a car driving for probably an hour and a half to a Clippers basketball game, dreaming about being back in Maui, where there’s no traffic.
I take it you missed LA?
LA was a very significant part of my life for quite a long time. It’s where I started the chef’s agency firm. I had a great restaurant on Sunset called “Carlos and Charlie’s.” It’s always had a vibrant food scene, but there was no spotlight on it. There were great little French places, always great ethnic food, and some real institutions like The Brown Derby. Its food scene was sort of like independent films as opposed to studio films; they were minor productions and they didn’t gross huge amounts of money, but I wasn’t a foodie when I first came to LA, so I just went to the obvious places.
When I would come here with Mr. Vergé, he would take me out to all these great places; Patina, Citrus, I can’t remember the names of some of these other French places, but L’Ermitage, an African place on La Cienega. So it was very different, there was no spotlight on it, and nobody really cared, but if you were a foodie and you searched for it, you could find it.
As opposed to, you know, Cleveland, or Buffalo or Indianapolis, or any of the other cities where now it’s exploding. For me it’s exciting to come to LA because there’s so many great things and so many creative young guys, but it’s even more rewarding in some ways to go to a place like Cleveland and have 25 choices of sophisticated culinary arts.
How did this book come about?
I was at a Roy Choi book signing party and Anthony came walking up and I’d never met him, but he definitely is a hero of mine and I am part groupie, so I was really excited when he came up. I went to introduce myself and he said, “You’re Shep Gordon, yeah?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I want to do your book.” And I said, “Really? Wow.” And he said, “Yeah, you know, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here.” And I said, “Really?” and he said, “Yeah, cause you made Emeril famous, and I made my reputation by beating up Emeril!” [laughs]
It’s been a great journey. Chef Roger Vergé, who was one of the inventors of Nouvelle Cuisine and, like, the Jimi Hendrix of chefs, became an icon. He did really change my life and I owe him a lot. Through his eyes and being with him I got to see how poorly the chefs of the world were treated. The French chefs were treated better than anywhere else in the world. But when we would come to America, the treatment that American chefs got compared to him was so different than in France.
Mr. Verge was given the legion of honor in France for cooking. There was nobody giving medals of honor here. You know, Mario Batali wasn’t cooking dinners at the White House then. It was a whole different game. I don’t think there was a guy making $80,000 a year, which, isn’t that bad, but, if you’re at the top of your profession, it’s not the greatest statement. And they were great artists. Being with Mr. Vergé, I got to see how poorly they were all treated.
I never get a call anymore for someone to work in Daniel’s kitchen or Emeril’s kitchen. The calls I get are, ‘Can you get him on Top Chef?’
Would you say that was the a-ha moment?
I had a moment where we were in northern California at an event that was being done for Mr. Verge. It was called “The Master Chef Series” at a motel. You bought in for three days—I think it was $2,500—you got a meal with chef Roy Yamaguchi. You also got a cooking lesson from each. And he didn’t get paid for it, which really surprised me.
I thought, I’ve spent my whole life monetizing artists. I sort of know how to do this. I’m going to change the direction of these careers. For me it was sort of obvious that the demand was there. You couldn’t get into places like Spago, or Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, or Le Cirque in New York. No matter how much money you had, you couldn’t get in. So I knew demand was there, it’s just nobody really monetized the demand.
Chefs are great artists, just like Michael Jackson is a great artist. Only the people in the dining room are the ones who get to experience your art. I just found delivery systems. And that’s what led to the Food Network on TV, Emeril’s spices, so people could put their hands on something like they put their hand on a record. Now people understand that chefs are artists and they get treated as artists, which is a nice thing.
You are often credited as creating the celebrity chef. How does it feel to have that title?
It’s great, I feel really proud of it. I did it pro bono for all the guys, so I never commissioned anybody and it’s really rewarding to see their work. There was nobody who believed it would happen. There’s a great story in the New York Times back in ‘92 by Florence Fabricant. The headline was “Crazy Hollywood Guy Thinks He’s Going to Make Chefs Celebrities.” [laughs]
You can Google it and read it. You’ll see it’s a very funny story. It was Florence Fabricant. But you know, everyone in my peer group thought I was insane. I had acts like Luther Vandross making a quarter of a million dollars a night and I could’ve signed many more of them than my peers who understood commissioning could. They all thought I was completely out of my mind. Here I was taking a group of guys that made nothing. So anyway, very rewarding to see it all happen. And as you can tell from your conversation with Emeril, the gratitude from all the guys is really fantastic. You know they really…it’s a warm feeling from all of them, which is really nice.
A lot of people are starving and I think that the culinary arts and the artists that are in this game now need to really focus on not just feeding rich people but feeding everybody in whatever way they can do it.
American food culture has changed tremendously. What is the role of the celebrity chef as we enter into 2017?
Well, I think it’s morphed into something different. I think that’s a really interesting question with a lot of different answers. I think that, sadly, not just in the chef world but in our entire world, celebrity meant that you were fantastic at what you did. That’s the way you became a celebrity.
If you were a great actor, if you were a great musician, if you were a great cook, if you were a great dancer, that’s what got you to fame. So people wanted to be great at their profession so they could become celebrities. Now being a celebrity is the whole game. Nobody really cares anymore about skills or the craft, they just want to be a celebrity.
I never get a call anymore for someone to work in Daniel’s kitchen or Emeril’s kitchen. The calls I get are, “Can you get him on Top Chef?” You know it’s a completely different game, so I think that’s very scary because the focus has become, “How do I get a TV show?” instead of “How do I learn how to make the best soufflé in the world?” So I think that part of it is scary.
That being said, I think that the phenomenon is amazing. And I think that the next evolution of it which we’re starting to see now are the David Changs of the world.
We’re going to see that next generation of immigrant cuisine incorporated into the techniques that these kids learn. So where the first wave of chefs were guys like Larry Forgione, Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing, and Charlie Trotter, who brought some of their influences of their families and their cultures to classic French cuisine, we’re starting to see all the children of Asian immigrants starting to really influence the food. And they were trained on American cuisine, so they weren’t trained on classic French cuisine, so it’s great to see that metamorphosis come. Just like in music, you know when new waves come into it.
Aren’t you the one to blame for every cook wanting his own TV show?
I guess in some ways I’m responsible for it. I gave the commencement speech at the CIA this year and I talked about how none of us who fought the wars get to be celebrity chefs. We never had a stated goal, but our underlying goal was never to just cook for rich people, which is what the art form has sort of become. It’s all $100 to $300 now.
Well, a lot of people are starving and I think that the culinary arts and the artists that are in this game now need to really focus on not just feeding rich people but feeding everybody in whatever way they can do it. Which is not to say they’re not charitable, but I think they can be more directly involved in it. Because that’s really what their focus should be: on feeding people, not just rich people. And I think a guy like Roy Choi demonstrates this. Jamie Oliver was really the one who started it and used the profession to train kids on vocations that really needed help.
There’s so many ways to put back in that I think it’s important they do.
What do you think of all these competition-based cooking shows on the Food Network nowadays?
You know, I think it’s great for what it is—it’s not really cooking. It’s entertainment value and people seem to enjoy it. You know, who am I to question it? But it’s a different thing than the real presentation of the art form. It’s more of a classic suspense. They’re all The Apprentice, basically. It’s all basically the same show. Someone wins, someone loses. I like win-win. But I certainly think they have value because people watch them.
I think now you can’t separate chef from celebrity. Just like you can’t separate musician from celebrity, or actor from celebrity.
Where do you see the future of celebrity chefs going?
It’s hard to say. I think that now, it’s sort of ingrained in society that restaurants are entertainment and not fuel. I think the category is well established enough now that the better restaurants will be considered celebrities rather than better chefs. But, I think within that, we’re going to see the wave of chefs taking from their family cultures. The other directions is this very, very, very, very, tech-oriented approach to food, all the chemical gases and the foams, and they’re pretty much the difference between writing a letter and using a computer. It’s pretty much today, it’s not a look, feel, touch, like a great meatball. You know it’s a look, feel, touch thing.
But I think that will die out just like every fad dies out. At least that’s my opinion. It just doesn’t have the warmth for me that I enjoy in a meal. But I’m not a tech guy either. If I was a tech guy I might really enjoy it.
Is there a place for the celebrity chef in 2017?
I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. I think that people have realized these are true artists. They follow their favorite artists the way they do their favorite music artists. If you’re the Rolling Stones, you have to put out a new album every couple of years. But if you go see a Rolling Stones concert, they’ve got to do their hits, they have to. Same thing with Emeril. Emeril’s got to put out new restaurants, new recipes, new cookbooks, but if you go to into an Emeril restaurant in New Orleans and he doesn’t serve his gumbo? You’re not going back to that restaurant.
So it’s pretty much the same rhythm as the other artists. I think it’s now accepted as an art. They’ll be one-hit wonders like in music. I think now you can’t separate chef from celebrity. Just like you can’t separate musician from celebrity, or actor from celebrity. There are some that are not successful, some that are successful, but they all are, basically.
You know, I even go to school cafeterias and the chef comes out there to meet the kids and give autographs to the parents. That’s, like, insane. [laughs] But just like you went to a club with 30 people in it, then someone would ask for an autograph of the band, even if they weren’t headlining baseball stadiums. I can’t see it going away.
Thank you for speaking with me.