PCS Blog

The Rise of the Celebrity Chef

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 02 January 2013


Turn on the Food Network today and you’ll encounter a plethora of game shows, reality shows and even talk shows, all centered around food. Whether your interest is barbeque, cupcakes or even iron chefs, there’s something for everyone, from the recipe rookie to the gastronomic connoisseur. Although food-related television programs today appear to be moving more and more toward pure entertainment, their original purpose was to demystify the art of cooking by presenting recipes that could be easily replicated by the home cook. Chef James Beard believed that food was a universal experience. But by bringing his recipes to television, he also showed Americans that cooking, too, was for everyone.
In 1946, Beard began demonstrating recipes on his televised cooking show I Love to Eat. Airing on NBC for 15 minutes on Friday evenings, the program was the very first network cooking show to grace small screens across America. Sadly, not one frame of footage from the show remains, as methods to record live television were not invented until 1947. Such timing! 
In the next few years, chefs like Alma Kitchell, Dione Lucas and Joseph Milani also tried their hands at the televised cooking show. Milani was the first to adopt a variety-show format, incorporating both songs and comedy routines. But it wasn’t until 1963, with the launch of Julia Child’s The French Chef, that audiences (and television producers) began to realize the true potential of cooking shows. With a charming and gregarious personality, Julia Child popularized and democratized French cooking in America. Today, her famed kitchen is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
The debonair Graham Kerr, whose show The Galloping Gourmet ran from 1969 to 1971, popularized the notion that culinary skills had a place in any worldly gentleman's repertoire. Featuring irreverent and sometimes racy humor (for the time), Gourmet was also the first show to utilize an in-studio audience.
In 1972, Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Cookin’ made “Cajun cuisine” a household phrase– along with his unforgettable line, “I gar-on-tee!” Throughout his life, Wilson actually referred to himself a cook, rather than a chef. "Cajun cooking is the ability to take what you have and create a good dish and season it right. It isn't all that hard, but so few people know how to take what they have and put it together and season it properly. It's creative cooking — that's all it is," Wilson told The Associated Press in 1990.
Traditional French cooking returned to the spotlight in 1982 with Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pépin. With a strict attention to detail, Pépin managed to transform even the simplest dishes into works that required acute gustatory precision. He would later co-star with Juilia Child in the 1999 PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.
Martha Stewart would join the scene in 1986, making her television debut on PBS with Holiday Entertaining with Martha Stewart. She then launched Martha Stewart Living in 1990 and, two years later, her weekly half-hour show Martha Stewart Living TV. Today, the business magnate is the chairwoman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which publishes a variety of magazines, television shows, radio shows and websites. She'd still be the CEO if it weren't for a certain stock trading conviction...but she seems to have made a rather successful comeback.
Over the years, cooking shows have reflected changing culinary trends, from the early days when even French recipes seemed exotic, through the rise of Pan-Asian and vegetarian, all the way to a full embrace of our desire for over-the-top decadence (Paula Deen, we’re looking at you). When the Food Network launched in the early 1990s, it quickly became one of the fastest growing networks on television – and a medium for chefs to become household names. To name a few, Wolfgang Puck, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Gordan Ramsay have all taken the term “celebrity chef” to a whole new meaning.
But it ultimately comes back down to the ingredients. Since James Beard first brought cooking to television in 1946, culinary shows have revolutionized the way we think about, talk about and prepare food.
Of course, the chefs listed above are only a brief sample of the gastronomic personalities we have invited into our kitchens, through the small screen, throughout the past 65 years. Which chef has revolutionized the way you think about food?
I Love to Eat runs January 8 - February 3 at Portland Center Stage.
Comments (0)

There are no comments for this entry yet.

Join the conversation!

Portland Center Stage welcomes your comments and criticism.

We invite you to share your comments with us on our Facebook page.


For current and upcoming shows, please see our Season Calendar.

Sign up for the PCS email list.

Season Sponsors