Alicia Kennedy on the Welcome Demise of Chef Culture
Turning away from celebrating (and celebrity) chefs to focus instead on the people and process that make up the vast majority of the food system.
Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In her newsletter, From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, she covers food culture, politics, cooking, and media, among other subjects. Her first book—No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating—comes out in summer 2023.
How are you holding up after Hurricane Fiona? I read your story about it in your newsletter, as well as your husband’s in the New York Times.
I’m good. In the San Juan metro area, we’re fine.
How long have you lived in Puerto Rico?
Since July 2019. I moved here because I met my husband here, and he’s always worked here.
I wanted to talk to you about another recent newsletter, the one inspired by the TV show Chef’s Table. It crystallized for me a lot of my own feelings and thoughts about celebrity chef culture, especially given how many chefs I talk to. Other than the show, what got you thinking in this vein?
Well, I’ve been doing research and revisiting a lot of—“content,” I guess we could say—about the rise of chef culture from the late 2000s to now, and how that’s shifted and changed and adjusted. Thinking about how things like Kitchen Confidential, or Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, or Bill Buford’s Heat really established the idea of the the rockstar chef. Then it was given more form by things like Lucky Peach and Chef’s Table and MAD Symposium. The culture moved from people writing about chefs, to chefs guiding it themselves while also being the star of the show—without a lot of critique of what that really means. All while acting as bosses to traditionally low-paid, disrespected staff.
That’s changed a little bit in terms of people looking at representing other types of chefs in the media recently. But I think it hasn’t come with—for obvious reasons—criticism of why media is allowed to be the arbiter of taste on this subject without an ongoing labor and economic analysis. Why does a writer pick out who the “best new chefs” are? Why are writers picking chefs for the James Beard awards, oftentimes without even eating at those chefs’ restaurants? Why is the World’s 50 Best Restaurants guided by money? We’re all seeing the the man behind the curtain, but it’s not really shifting how we’re talking about these issues.
The Chef’s Table piece was just an easy way for me to talk about these things because the pizza episode had just come out. I’ve actually really moved away from wanting to write about restaurants and chefs at all, except when they’re providing better context on why they’re using an ingredient, or or how an ingredient fits into their cuisine or their approach. I just find chefs not to be compelling figures anymore.
To write about chefs is a way to be a food writer. I alluded to that in the piece—about how when I worked at a glossy food magazine, and when the editor in chief was leaving, her office was filled with flowers from Daniel Boulud and everybody. So when you see that, you think that’s the way it’s done. You find sources and cultivate these relationships. I’ve been really lucky to not have to do that as much anymore.
“What is our whole thing with chefs? What’s our thing with chef culture? I feel like it really is on life support right now.”
I do like writing about restaurants. I like writing about the issues around restaurants and ingredients specifically. But I also think it’s interesting to get into—what is our whole thing with chefs? What’s our thing with chef culture? I feel like it really is on life support right now. A great way of looking at it, a way of seeing where it is, is the meme account Allez Celine. It’s actually a journalist behind that—a food journalist who has worked in kitchens. I think she is really encapsulating the mood. Same with the FOH podcast, where it’s like, “We’re done pretending that these are important people for any reason other than they do a job, and oftentimes they don’t do the job very well.”
So how do we shift the way we talk about this to be more useful and constructive—really changing and shifting food culture in a way that is beneficial for people, for the planet, for eaters, et cetera, and not just about egos? All that is a long way of saying the Chef’s Table piece was just a way of thinking some thoughts out loud about a bigger piece I have on the back burner.
I enjoy talking to chefs, but not because I care that they’re chefs. I just like talking to people. I don’t particularly care about new openings, or cooking, or even food, which I know sounds oppositional to what you were just saying about your own interests. Some of the most compelling conversations I’ve had with chefs were about banal subjects, or more about them as people outside of their work, or at least topics tangential to their chef-hood. But even those chefs who are very positive and singing kumbaya about diversity, or de-toxifying kitchens, or paying workers more—sometimes I’m unsure if they really feel this things, or if they just feel them because they have to, now. Your piece made me realize that while the traditional idea of the magisterial, mystical chef figure, obliterating the presence of everyone else who works at a restaurant—maybe that’s just getting replaced by these chef “characters.” The rebel chef, the redemption arc chef, the humble spiritual seeker chef. It feels like a cosmetic change, with many of the same dynamics as old school celebrity chef culture.
Well … did you have a question?
I was almost getting ready to sort of ask a question! Which is—and I know you said you’re not really interested in talking to chefs—how do you, as a writer and interviewer, talk to someone who might adapt a similar persona or position of authority as a way of not being particularly genuine or sincere?
I think I’m in a unique position in that, one, I write about vegetarian and vegan food. So I have a self-selecting group of topics and people that I talk to. Two, I’m based in Puerto Rico, so I’m talking to chefs who are naturally not of that culture. I mean, you could find them here. I know who they are. But the ones I talk to are people working on a smaller scale, trying to support local produce in a really earnest way. They’re doing things differently by necessity, because they don’t have the option to be an absent but also toxic and overbearing presence in the kitchen.
That’s true here in San Juan in particular, but also when you’re just talking about vegetarian or vegan food. They already have so many obstacles in front of them in terms of getting their point across that there’s going to be a bit more of an earnestness about what they do. There’s always going to be a bit of a political angle to it, which I love, obviously. And there’s always going to be—I don’t want to use the word “agenda,” because it sounds terrible. But it is an agenda. They have points to prove that are very specific.
So because I focus on chefs who are doing very specific things, who are oftentimes marginalized in their own ways—whether they’re women, whether they’re people of color, whether they’re women of color, whether they’re queer, trans, et cetera—there’s always going to be a bit more of a self-awareness about about the role they play, and a real eagerness to prove themselves. The world is always going to judge them a bit more harshly.
I think one of the most compelling things about “toxic chef reveals” is that no one ever questioned anything about them in the first place. It’s really interesting and strange. No one thought to ask questions of the people in the kitchen, to ask the front of house, to really make sure they were building someone up who was worthwhile.
“The hype is a problem in and of itself. This attachment to hype and the attachment to critics is poisonous.”
The hype is a problem in and of itself. This attachment to hype and the attachment to critics is poisonous. But I understand why it happens. I’m not nominating myself for a James Beard award because I don’t believe in them necessarily. At the same time, would it be nice to have that? I know it would open doors and provide me more material security. But, you know, I can’t.
When I was working at Zagat, we ran a couple of really good stories about Puerto Rico. One on Paxx Caraballo Moll, who I believe you’ve also written about.
Yeah, I profiled them in 2015, and they’ve been my friend since then.
We also did a beautiful video with Juan José Cuevas, sadly no longer online.
Oh yeah. I love him. He is of that older guard type. He worked at Blue Hill.
He is definitely old school, but he did seem sincerely committed to transparency about sourcing and supporting local producers. We talked to him right after Hurricane Maria. I don’t know how much of that philosophy really reaches into the full extent of his business, but I guess it’s something.
Well, he’s working at the most expensive and fanciest place. I love that hotel, and I love 1919. But he has more resources than other chefs.
Farming, labor, sustainability, logistics, other aspects of the food system we don’t often see covered in food media—is it just these topics don’t draw eyeballs?
I think it’s because it gets in the way of the idea that it’s okay to endlessly consume. This whole idea that going to restaurants is a necessary part of a of a rich life—I don’t necessarily think that’s true all the time. I love going to restaurants, but it is what it is. And, yeah, it gets in the way of that model that says anything goes. Food media is based on a model of endless indulgent consumption, even when it’s trying to be a little bit better than when it was just all dudes going to steakhouses. But if you talk about farm workers, if you talk about meat-processing workers, if you talk about climate change—you get in the way of the fun time that we’re all supposed to be having.
That’s why it’s disingenuous to me when there is a focus on writing these “toxic chef” stories. Yeah, if someone is apparently bad, we should talk about that. But there are bad things going on in the food system. Every single day, there’s wage theft. We don’t talk about wage theft when it involves big chefs. It’s been in the news. It’s been in local media, but it’s never gotten a big story, because then it gets in the way of nice big fucking fluff pieces about certain people. If I say names, I’m going to get emails calling me a bitch, because it’s happened before.
This whole system that you fucking put on a pedestal every single day is held up by the backbreaking labor of farm workers and meat-processing workers who do not have the same rights as every other worker. In Alice Driver’s great reporting on Tyson chicken-processing workers in Arkansas, she showed that they force people to sign NDAs to never talk about what goes on. You can say whatever you want about Ruth Reichl and Gourmet, but they did something very different when they published “Consider the Lobster,” when they published Barry Easterbrook on tomato farming in Florida.
“There was a model for food media where you’re doing the recipes, and you’re doing the trips to Paris, but you’re also doing real actual reporting on the ethics of consumption and labor.”
There was a model for food media where you’re doing the recipes, and you’re doing the trips to Paris, but you’re also doing real actual reporting on the ethics of consumption and labor. It wasn't as extensive as it should have been by any stretch. But instead of expanding upon that, what we’ve seen is just more stratification, where it’s only Civil Eats, it’s only FoodPrint that talk about food policy and food ethics. The rest of food media is just “Let’s go to a restaurant!” and fluff, fluff, fluff all the time. Maybe one day out of the year, they say, “Hey, climate change is happening. And the food system accounts for 33% of global greenhouse gas emissions. What’s that about?” And then the rest of the year, it’s nothing. You ruin the whole game if you actually bring these real issues into the fold.
Can you imagine an ethically composed and sustainable food media publication? What would that look like?
I used to work at Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, and I used to write for the Village Voice, too. I think local media is always the antidote. Obviously local media is dying or already dead. Food media publications like Eater have local sites, but they’re still really focused on that restaurant consumption model. But it’s in local journalism that you’re able to tell these stories in a way that has integrity and keeps people interested because it’s less about the entertainment and aspirational aspect. You’re telling people, “This is the new bar down the street from you, and this is what they’re doing.” It doesn’t have that kind of disgusting feeling I get when I’m seeing every food media person going to the same fricking restaurant. It just makes me queasy, especially since I left New York, and I’m not part of that hustle anymore. You all really go to the same fucking two places! Are you okay? Is there anywhere else?
There is a model where we’re going to tell real stories about agriculture happening locally, about farmers. We’re going to show the connection between our local agriculture and our local restaurants. It’s very earnest and maybe a little bit hokey at times. The model exists—though underfunded—for creating food media that really talks to people and meets them where they are, at their local pizza shop or wherever. It’s a bit utopian of me to love that, but that’s what I love.
A lot of how I write about food now comes from spending time at Edible Brooklyn and the Village Voice. It comes from having a little bit more room to make connections and be honest. I definitely come from an alt-weekly perspective, but I also come from a very earnest obsession with agriculture, and biodiversity, and farm worker livelihoods.
It feels like the approach we’re talking about here is genetically incompatible with big media. The money just doesn’t work.
The money doesn’t flow to these sorts of things. That, for me, is having to make an admission about my own earning potential, as a person who needs money. I’m living with my own limitations. In food media, it’s weird to be a person who doesn’t do partnerships, who doesn’t do ads.
It would seem in the world of food newsletters, you’ve accumulated a pretty substantial audience. Is it enough to make your work sustainable?
The Substack newsletter does make my work sustainable. What I make from the Substack after fees and taxes is as much as I used to make hustling my ass off. I would have to do a frickin’ blog post a day to make this much money. The newsletter has made my life sustainable in that way because it’s a great base to grow from. I very rarely pitch. People come to me and either ask me for ideas, or come to me with ideas for what I should write. That’s the rest of my workload. Then I’m going to be teaching next semester at Boston University. And my book is coming out next year. I went with Beacon Press, and my advance was $10,000. So it’s not like I’m raking it in, though some people seem to think so.
Do people believe you have somehow sold out?
I don’t think anyone thinks I sold out. I think people suspect I have another secret or perhaps familial source of income, or maybe my husband makes a lot of money. But we’re both just working people. It is very difficult—and I write about this probably once a financial quarter—when the money you make is tied to your name and personality.
My numbers stay pretty stable in terms of about 2,200 paid subscribers. I’ve gotten used to how it works. After a couple of years, I know there’s going to be a huge drop in the middle of summer, but it’s going to pick back up again. So I don’t need to have a panic attack every summer that it’s over now, and I’ve lost everything. Food writers who have a staff job, they’re not watching their salary change based on the metrics or whether people like them or not. But I charge as little as I possibly can for an annual subscription. I’m not making six figures.
So we’re not talking Glenn Greenwald money here.
Exactly. We’re not doing the Greenwald money. I noticed some people charge $200 a year. I’m like, are you out of your mind?
Given your experiences so far, what represents the ideal mix of work for you?
I would like to do same amount of newsletter. It’s fine for me, honestly. It keeps me nimble. It keeps me paying attention to things. It forces me to cook more, and to try and be creative in that way. I would like to do newsletters, and I would like to do books, but books for more money. I would like to have an advance where I got a chunk of money at signing that allowed me to live and focus on the project for at least three or four months.
I’m a person who needs to work. I love working. I need to be doing shit all the time. I like the newsletter because it constantly gives me something to do. I never like sitting around twiddling my thumbs, but I would love a few solid months to focus on one thing. That would be amazing.