I received an email the other day that included a press release about a “celebrity chef” event in Charlotte. I looked at the list of chefs participating and didn’t recognize a single one. Now I have to admit that I don’t watch the Food Network all that much, and I couldn’t name a lot of the personalities that they on their programs, but it’s clear that television, and the Food Network in particular, has changed the public’s perception of all chefs. No longer does a chef have to have a big TV deal, or even a cookbook, to be a celebrity. The only requirement, it appears from this Charlotte event, is that the chef be, well, a chef. Now I’m as caught up in chef worship as much as the next person, but we really need to remember that these chefs are just hard-working folks. Hell, most of the chefs who are on television regularly and can truly be considered CELEBRITIES (Bayless, Batali, Keller, Pepin) are not that much different than you, me or anyone else. And when we talk about the local chefs who might be considered “stars,” well, once again, they’re for the most part just plain folk. Ben and Karen Barker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill have each won a James Beard Award, but they’re as humble and nice as can be. Sure they have egos, but the manifestation of that ego is what’s on the plate. They bust their butt to make sure that what we eat is top-notch, night after night.
We are all caught up in the cult of personality, and when it comes to marketing, the emphasis is inevitably more on the chef than the restaurant itself. From a national perspective, there might only be one true celebrity chef in the Triangle, and that’s Ed Mitchell of The Pit. He has become an icon, with his face plastered in the glossy food magazines, swooned over by foodies, and interviewed by the network morning shows. With his bib overall and fluffy white beard, he presents a memorable image, and when combined with his down-home, “aw, shucks” demeanor, you realize how well that will sell. But when you get right down to it, he’s not really a chef, as the vast majority of the cooking and menu design is done by Lauren Smaxwell. What, you haven’t heard of Lauren? That’s because the icon of a barbecue restaurant is its pitmaster, and what an icon The Pit has! The marketing of Ed Mitchell has made The Pit one of the busiest and most profitable restaurants in the South.
As I started to think about the role of icons and egos in the marketing of restaurants, I also began to look for other examples in Raleigh – where the chef himself (or herself) was bigger than the eatery or the food. And I discovered two icons, two legends, two trailblazers in our local food culture. These two individuals could not be any more different, and neither of them have anything to do with traditional Southern cooking. One is Jewish, the other grew up in Vietnam. One started a vegetarian restaurant. The other introduced East Asian flavors to Raleigh. Arthur Gordon opened his restaurant in 1975, and it’s still in operation. David Mao started his first establishment in 1976, and after running several others, opened a new dumpling and noodle house near the NC State Campus. Both of these chefs/restaurateurs have large egos, but those egos are manifested in different ways.
Arthur Gordon of the Irregardless Café might be the Triangle’s original celebrity chef, running this establishment for 35 years. He always wanted to be a chef, and he applied to the Culinary Institute of America after graduating from UNC. The CIA told Gordon that he needed to spend a year getting some cooking experience, so he decided to open his own restaurant. And what a ballsy move he made, starting a vegetarian restaurant in a depressed area of Raleigh in 1975. He offered four entrees a day – all listed on a chalkboard (yes, well before Ashley Christensen revived that concept). He introduced the Triangle to foods that are now considered cliché, such as lemon tahini dressing, and was “green” well before anyone called it that. The restaurant is no longer vegetarian, as all types of meat and seafood are offered (except for pork), and Gordon no longer runs the kitchen, but he IS the Irregardless. Newspaper articles featuring Gordon fill the walls. Gordon constantly circulates through the dining room, reminding guests that he’s still around. Gordon will be the first one to tell you that he has a big ego and craves being the center of attention. His role today is to be seen – the icon in the flesh – and he loves hosting hundreds of diners a week. With Gordon out of the kitchen (he considers himself the Executive Chef “Emeritus”), he admits that his primary role is marketing. But the marketing is not just of the restaurant. It’s also about marketing himself. He’s trying to embrace social media. He’s given blogging a try. He’s trying to stay relevant. And you know what, the food at Irregardless is a lot better than you would expect, particularly the vegetarian items. You won’t experience anything new or earth-shattering, but you will get a solid meal for a solid price. And you’ll likely also get to meet Arthur Gordon, who is more than happy to tell you his story – a story that is not just a tale of a restaurant, but of the city where he works and lives.
Unlike Arthur Gordon, who has stayed in the same place for many years, David Mao has moved around a bit in the past few years. Mao started his iconic restaurant, Mandarin House, in Cameron Village, a year after Gordon opened Irregardless. He was involved with several other restaurants in downtown Raleigh, but Mandarin House was his primary spot – until he joined forces with Greg Hatem’s Empire Eats to open The Duck and Dumpling. It was at the D&D where a new generation of Triangle diners got to know about Mao’s hand-made dumplings. The D&D was a hip, Asian spot in downtown Raleigh, and Empire Eats marketed Mao as an icon, just like it has done with Ed Mitchell at The Pit. Thinking he was going to retire, Mao left the Duck and Dumpling. But the retirement didn’t take, and Mao recently opened David’s Dumpling and Noodle Bar on the corner of Hillsborough and Oberlin. The food is great, but what caught my eye as I walked in, was that this place was one big Shrine of Mao. That is, there are huge photos of David Mao on the walls. David making dumplings. David making noodles. Or just David looking at the camera. This restaurant, first and foremost, is all about David Mao. And when Chef Mao came out of the kitchen to check on his customers, I felt a bit odd, being looked at by the photos as well as the guy in those photos. I’m very comfortable around chefs, but this was different. Those larger than life photos put me on edge, making me think that this chef perhaps was someone bigger than usual, deserving of the adulation, even though I didn’t see him talk to a single customer. Mao might like to be the center of attention, but not necessarily in a direct manner.
But that’s what it’s come down to, in our age of the celebrity chef. It’s become an era of icons and egos, as that is what the customers want. Where the marketing of the chef is what often drives business, and what’s on the plate is almost secondary. The food still has to be good, of course, but the personality of the icon (or often, the presentation and marketing of the icon) can drive the business. The problem with this thesis, however, is that we’re not talking about two new kids on the block here in Raleigh. These are two icons who have been doing this for 35 years, which shows me that the appeal of celebrity chefs is nothing new. I’m not sure when Arthur Gordon and David Mao become culinary stars, but they’ve certainly earned their fame and success. And if they want to market themselves more than ever before, who’s to blame them? We’re just glad that they’re here.