What's Up With The Bad Boy Image In The Food Industry?

2023-03-16 17:40:09 By : Ms. Renee Chan

Today's male TV chefs look like strung-out rockstars like the late, great Anthony Bourdain and like those depicted in Hulu's "The Bear." These aggressive, tattoo-riddled, speak-your-mind chefs have become the poster boys for this generation's chef de cuisine, a far cry from the boy-next-door looks of Jacques Pépin or the likable guy persona of Emeril Lagasse. The young chefs and obscenity-screaming hosts featured in the gazillion cooking competitions have a similar "bad boy" image that portrays a tell-it-like-it-is persona familiar to reality television shows with little room for chefs that present in other ways. Hollywood has fictionalized the brooding, fixer-upper chef in movies like "Chef" and "Burnt," leaving the rest of us to assume all professional chefs are like Bradley Cooper's character, struggling to get their careers back on track after addiction and repressed trauma derails it. 

Chefs that succeed in real life require a kind of grit that often doesn't mirror what grandma looked like in the kitchen, begging the question: Do the late hours, high-stress, fast-paced careers appeal to a particular type of person, or does the career breed the "bad boys" the food industry is teaming with? The food industry is a notoriously challenging and diverse environment, yet only one side is being portrayed in the media, and it's time to correct that mistake.

The truth is, some of us can't resist the bad boy. We rooted for Danny Zuko in "Grease" and couldn't keep our eyes off Jax from "Sons of Anarchy," so it was only a matter of time before we found him in the kitchen. The image of tousled-haired male chefs like Gordon Ramsay throwing pots or the sharp tongue and pen of Anthony Bourdain berating his peers is pervasive on food television. Since the inception of the 24 hours a day food channel in 1993, Food Network, chefs have been catapulted to celebrity status, with the loudest, most controversial getting the most air time, and we need to take some responsibility for that. There's still a piece of us attracted to the flawed, dangerous characters we want to save, even though we like to think we outgrew them in high school. 

While these bad boys don't represent the entire industry, the grueling hours, and often harsh workplace environment, can also lead to a higher rate of drug and alcohol us –  which goes hand-in-hand with the bad boy image — but isn't good for anyone in the long run. In fact, a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study concluded those in the restaurant industry are "the most at risk for illicit drug use and substance use disorders and the third most at risk for heavy alcohol use." It is common (and more accessible) for restaurant staff to hang out after work and unwind with drinks, even on a Tuesday, making drug use more familial and desensitizing since nearly 20% of workers reported using illicit drugs. While the industry doesn't make you an addict, it may be hard for some to resist. 

In a nation that over-stresses the importance of getting a four-year degree, the food industry is still a viable career opportunity for people with a high school diploma or GED. Chefs receive on-the-job training as valuable as pricy culinary schools like the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales, where tuition can cost upwards of $37,000 per year. However, skills aren't the only things chefs learn on the job. Gordon Ramsay received on-the-job training from another hot-headed chef, Marco Pierre White, who famously made Ramsay cry and took responsibility for creating a "monster." Would Ramsay's demeanor be different had he learned in a school or even from another chef? Almost 3,000 students are enrolled in the CIA alone, where they hone their craft and personally develop; we'd like to see more of them represented. 

In fact, some chefs are working to reduce food waste, end food insecurity, promote local farming, and are at the forefront of social change, like fighting for the rights of undocumented workers. We'd like to see more representation in the media of those chefs. Chefs like Jose Andrés and his non-profit World Central Kitchen are on the frontline when natural disasters hit or war ravages a nation, feeding the people and shaping policy. Sure, he's a less flashy family man with three daughters, but he has an important message, not to mention a god in the kitchen. Cooking shows made this career an exciting and respectable option; let's start showing all the promising aspects of the industry.

Cooking shows were once high-brow reality television when Julia Child and later Emeril Lagasse were the stars but have fallen victim to a louder, more aggressive formula like the rest of the genre. We love to watch a bad boy because, for many of us, it's a departure from how we live our lives. However, the bad boy image doesn't represent every chef in the food industry, just like "The Sopranos" doesn't mean all Italian Americans are mobsters. On-screen, their volatile nature is exciting compared to watching someone conform to every social norm (snooze). In reality, cooking alongside that temperament would be an absolute nightmare, so let's strike a balance.

We appreciate that Anthony Bourdain pulled back the curtain on the restaurant industry in "Kitchen Confidential" and called out hypocrisies when he saw them. He didn't just spit fire; he backed it up and elicited change. We need more of that; chefs willing to put their necks on the line to change the broken food system. Let's move away from meanness for shock value. We don't need more yelling and disrespect, and we certainly don't want the next generation to think that's acceptable behavior. Bring on the tattoo sleeves, but also represent the women in the field, rockstars and "Susie Homemakers," and the gentle men quietly making our lives better one delicious dish at a time. Show us the innovators in the field to inspire the next great leaders in the food industry. Not only do we need those people, but they can make for exciting television too.