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Gather 'Round the Table - Food and Celebrity

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 18, 2010 4:40PM

BaylessCeleb.jpg On Monday mornings, we invite our readers to gather around our table and discuss a culinary issue of the day. If you have anything you'd like to talk about, send it to

No one who watches television, reads blogs or goes out to dinner can possibly ignore the impact of celebrity chef culture. Chefs with their names stitched on their jackets, often with fancy logos, have become a constant presence in our lives, and some of them are as recognizable as rock stars, models or famous authors. But the question remains - is this good for those of us who eat out?

Last month, in his review of Todd English's Ca Va, Sam Sifton wrote a line that had us giggling for days. Describing a $25 steak frites, he warned that it had "the texture and flavor of a bound collection of Ibsen rescued from a house fire." Normally, this would not be particularly notable - a bad dish at a mediocre restaurant. But this restaurant is likely, even guaranteed, to succeed in the short run, because it has a celebrity chef attached to it, and all the snark Sifton can muster probably won't make a dent. Cat Cora (of Iron Chef and Muppets fame), Wolfgang Puck and English all have restaurants in Disney World, and we can't keep track of the number of Mario Batali pasta spots. Despite the names and accolades, no one seems that impressed with the food at many of these spots.

Here in Chicago, we have our own share of celebrity. Some celebrity chefs come in from other cities - Marcus Samuelsson owns C-House, David Burke owns his eponymous restaurant - and some are more local. Tony Mantuano is President Obama's favorite chef (and owns multiple restaurants), everything Rick Bayless touches turns to gold, Stephanie Izard's new restaurant has lines around the block and Charlie Trotter keeps on chugging along, despite cuisine we're not particularly fond of.

Do you pay any attention to "celebrity" when you dine out? Have you ever gone to a restaurant because you saw the chef on TV? Does it matter if the chef is a local, vs. a national celebrity? If a culinary student opened Xoco, would it be impossible to get into, or is it the aura of fame that draws us? Is Girl and the Goat bringing people in with the smell of pork fat or the hope of glimpsing a Top Chef?

Perhaps here in Chicago we aren't wiling to pay $25 for a burned hunk of char because it has a fancy name on it. What do you think?