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The General Fuckery Surrounding Rockstar Chefs

"Foodies!" shouts a large, be-khakied Mohegan Sun employee to her friend as they meander by us. The methodical clanging beeps of the slot machines almost drown out her voice. "They're all foodies. That's why they're here."

I stand on tiptoe and peer down the hefty line that is snaking around the casino floor. Shit, I think. There sure are a lot of us.

We're here, (here being Uncasville, CT) for the Mohegan Sun WineFest, more specifically, for the Celebrity Chef Dine Around. The dinner is billed as an intimate chance to mingle with some of the industry's best (read: Bobby Flay and Todd English) while noshing on gourmet grub, but the doors haven't even been opened and there are already three times more attendees than I was expecting.

"Do you know if this is like, a sit-down thing?" asks the guy in front of us. He tilts his head to a young woman slumped at a nearby slot machine. "My wife keeps telling me it's a sit-down dinner."

I try to imagine the chaos that might ensue from seating over 500 people for a formal dinner, and decide that logically, this is going to be a mess. Twenty minutes later, the doors swing open (at least I think they do, I can't really see that far) and the line finally begins to move.

Once inside, it's a mad dash, and I'm frantically trying to make notes of what's happening while simultaneously keeping up a breakneck stride with my fellow dinner companions. There's a table with champagne on my right! I mistakenly snatch a glass from a nicely-dressed man I take to be some sort of steward, but is actually just a dude trying to hand glasses to his friends. I realize my mistake and turn to apologize but he's lost in the crowd. Too late, I think, and slosh the bubbly back, trying to stay alert.

We enter the grand ballroom, and my heart sinks for a moment. There are tables, too many to count, sprinkled around the room. Chef stations are lined around the edges and through the middle, serving tiny creations on tiny plates. It's a walking dinner, and now my mind turns to the logistics behind stacking as many plates as I can on my arms.

There's a table piled high with glossy new cookbooks. There's a serious-faced DJ with a fedora. And there, surrounded by a mob of women with mom haircuts, is Bobby Flay.

As we flit from booth to booth, the food is surprisingly wonderful in some cases, but the atmosphere is so strange that neither of us can put a finger on what's wrong. The lesser-known (every chef without a Food Network show or a chain restaurant) stations are always empty, which allows for some genuine, eye-to-eye, thank-you-for-taking-the-time-to-make-me-this-plate time. I get to shake Blue, Inc.'s Jason Santos' hand and talk soup for a moment, which is nice.

The Hudson Valley people are offering an ethereal foie gras flan, surrounded by earthy, sensuous mushrooms that disappears the second it hits your tongue. I'm admiring the tiny flan molds and watching the culinary students work the line, when a round of teenybopper screams and whoops erupt at the next station over.

It's Robert Irvine, the kitchen G.I. Joe from Restaurant Impossible. I can't see what Irvine is actually serving through the hordes of people clutching cookbooks and cameras.  The Hudson Valley chefs sneer just the teensiest bit.

Flay's line never dwindles, but from what I can gather, all he's serving is boring old sliders. Boston's favorite son Todd English schmoozes around his booth and takes picture after picture. Iron Chef Marc Forgione and family are a saving grace: all of the mega-famous Forgiones are working, quietly plating up pork tenderloin.

As I sat at a table, I was suddenly disgusted by the cultish reverence of it all. It made no sense, since I was surrounded by the very people I have chosen to write about, but felt no camaraderie.

What is it about the Celebrity Chef that is so bothersome? These are people who have struck gold in a fickle industry, and are working the system as well as they know how. So what if Food Network made you what you are, and you work the crowds more than you work the line?

"I love your show," one woman squeals at Flay excitedly as I walk by. "But this is the first time I'm having one of your burgers! I could just die!"

Now, there's no doubt that Bobby Flay is talented (I've watched him run around on Iron Chef plenty of times), but glorifying a chef before actually trying his or her wares is something relatively new in the "foodie" sphere. Is this woman really a foodie? Maybe. Does it matter? In my opinion, yes.

A chef need not be anonymous in order to create truly amazing dishes. Far from it, in fact. A healthy dose of publicity is necessary from a business standpoint--nobody can eat your food if your doors are closed--but I am of the belief that the food, not your new line of copper pans or knives, should be front and center in the food industry. It's a fine line, being known for your food, and being known because of your food. All of these chefs have a respectable resume of kitchen experience. So why does it (excuse the pun) leave a bad taste in my mouth?

Is there something wrong with larger-than-life chefs? Does it take away from the experience of great food? Maybe I'm wrong, and Bobby Flay's burgers are truly life-changing. You tell me.

 

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