Wednesday, December 17, 2008

top chef, synchronicity, and sell-outs

I just started watching Top Chef with TD, who's an avid fan. Of course, this means he has to watch all of the previous four seasons again. I like the show a lot. Drama and vote-off intrigue with a touch of the Real World, except that these people are actually talented and I care about their product. TD and I both like food, from street food to fine dining, so this is one of the few shows that appeals to us. I can't get him into Buffy, alas.

Anyway, in keeping with Jungian synchronicity, I now notice Top Chef references and the people featured therein everywhere. Like this guy, the improbably named Rocco DiSpirito. Cute, no? In a slightly rogueish, creature-of-the-flesh way, and any guy who loves bacon is a fun guy in my book. A lot more fun than this creature-of-the-bones woman. He is apparently a very talented chef, or was. Is? Was? He is still talented, but doesn't cook anymore. His culinary cohorts are hating on him (hate the game, not the player!) for being more of a fixture on food tv, schilling for Bertolli, and dumbing down his craft with processed foods and dancing with the stars (seriously?) than cooking haute cuisine:

The word “sad” seems to surface a lot when you bring up Mr. DiSpirito’s curious career arc. “We were talking the other day, another food-obsessed person and I, and we were just saying how sad it was that he has disappeared,” said Gael Greene, the grande dame of New York food scribes, and one of the first to celebrate Mr. DiSpirito’s talent 13 years ago when he was the chef at Dava. “I do believe that ‘Dancing With the Stars’ is kind of the last stop. This person said, ‘Oh, he’ll never be back, if he can make a living doing commercials and appearances and TV and books.’ I don’t understand — has he totally lost that passion to cook? Because there are chefs that don’t like to cook, and they just want to be stars. How could somebody be so talented and so gifted and just write it off?”

Of course, these days plenty of chefs are hawking products and hustling for TV gigs — Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, Mr. Bourdain himself — and yet very few of them come in for the vigorous hazings that Mr. DiSpirito endures.

That, Ms. Greene explained, is because Mr. DiSpirito no longer oversees a kitchen. “Mario still is doing restaurants, and his restaurants are mostly wonderful, if you see him there or not,” she said. “Anthony Bourdain was so funny and so amusing that he became a show-business personality, and we don’t question that, because he was not a great chef who sold out. He was just a perfectly ordinary cook. But somebody like Rocco, who is exceptionally gifted, seems to have thrown it all away — that’s why people are so upset about it.”

Within a few years, the meticulous wunderkind from Queens had turned into a food-show Zelig. These days he has his A&E show and a new cookbook, also called “Rocco Gets Real,” a name that seems as much a mission statement as a title — an attempt, perhaps, to merge the public and private and past and present Roccos and get back to basics. In contrast to his near-psychedelic experiments with flavor at Union Pacific, the “Rocco Gets Real” book (Meredith, $19.95) features recipes that often hinge on brand-name ingredients like a can of Progresso lentil soup, a jar of Heinz pork gravy or a cup of Splenda.

Mr. DiSpirito defends his career path with missionary zeal. What he loves to do, he says, is to bring his rarefied culinary skills to regular folks everywhere: “The vast majority of what I hear from the people who appreciate what I do — which is I think more of the general public, more of America, versus the people who write and read Gawker, a small but very influential group of people — is that they love what I do, and they feel like there is someone from the professional world advocating for them,” he said.

I normally don't care what people do with their careers, or whether rareified elitists decide to become populists, but the idea of "sell-out" is interesting to me in an abstract way. Seriously, who isn't a sell-out? What does it take to preserve ___ cred, if you sell out in every other way? Is it squandering talent not to use it in the most pure, least-accessible, least-remunerative way? Does a street busker have more authenticity and unsullied talent than Bob Dylan, at least after he started schilling for Victoria's Secret?

A lot of this tracks elitist/populist arguments, and while I am a die-hard elitist about some things (especially academia), I am also one of those pro-gente types who likes the idea of making ideas accessible, and hates the sanctimony of those gatekeepers who artificially inflate the value of things. See, e.g., Gawker and the insufferable NYC literary elites.

DiSpirito seems to still possess talent, and he is living his life. What's the problem? How is this selling out? He appears to still have a passion for food, but is merely more democratic about distilling this love for the plebians, capitalizing on his celebrity if necessary. Should street buskers refuse record deals? Is every "legitimate" band who decides to do a Christmas song an artistic sell-out? What is artistic purity, and aren't the haterz who decry the degradation of their art mere hypocrites for saying "I sold out to X extent, but since you sold out to Y, you deserve my scorn!" This is not unlike the sobered-up Susan Cheever's schadenfreude at watching other people get drunk. She knows what it is to have lapsed and compromised herself--and ha! look at other people do it too, the suckers! I'm not saying Rocco comes off untarnished in this article, but Mario Batali (srsly?) and Anthony Bourdain just come off as sanctimonious hypocrites.