I had the pleasure a few weeks back to view a romantic comedy in Aspen. It was not playing at a local movie theater, but rather all around town during Food & Wine magazine’s annual "Classic" in the Rocky Mountains. The romance involved 5,000 or so "foodies" who traveled to Aspen for a love fest with the culinary glitterati. The comedy comes from watching people fawn over . . . well . . . a bunch of cooks.
It’s not so ironic that this 19-year-old event takes place in Aspen, which serves as an outpost for many Hollywood types, including Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson. But for three days in June, the stars of Aspen are chefs, such as Bobby Flay, and wine gurus the likes of Andrea Immer.
On a number of occasions I had hopes of speaking to a chef after a cooking demo, but the crowd besieged the Rick Baylesses, the Mario Batalis and the Todd Englishes for autographs and pictures. I could not compete with their enthusiasm.
All of this attention is, as you might expect, due to the rise of the television Food Network. It has made stars of working class heroes like Emeril Lagasse. Our friend from New Orleans, by the way, could not be at this year’s Food & Wine Classic, perhaps because he is preparing for his television network sitcom to begin airing in September.
Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Entertainment, says the network is taking a chance on giving a chef his very own primetime sitcom, but he’s convinced "Emeril’s a guy who connects with people in America on an everyday-life basis."
Who knows, maybe that’s the key to the surging popularity of chefs and others in the culinary world: Your down-to-earth approachability. In fact, that’s exactly the type of people Hollywood executives turned to when faced with a writers strike that threatened to put Hollywood actors on the sideline. So called "reality" television kicked in with shows such as "Survivor," featuring non-actors, including Keith Famie, a Detroit-area chef who failed to win the $1 million prize, but got himself a whole lot of notoriety and fan mail.
Famie, by the way, was in Aspen to celebrate his new found celebrity and compete in a cook-off against Jacques Pepin. He may have been no match for Julia Child’s pal, but the crowd loved and swarmed him.
They also loved New York restaurateurs Danny Meyer and Drew Nieporent, the focal point of a trade seminar that, for the first time in the history of this event, allowed consumers to attend. Both epitomize the ordinary guy demeanor that attracts people in and out of the business. Both are anything but ordinary. Just ask Robert DiNiro, who owns a piece of Nieporent’s restaurants.
Most of these culinary folks mentioned are exceptional. They just don’t take the star thing too far. The same can be said for L.A. chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who were in Aspen to premier the film Tortilla Soup, for which they prepared featured recipes. Hollywood looked to them and the culinary world for inspiration, much the way it did to create Big Night and Chocolat.
Who would have thunk it?You are a member of the new Hollywood. Maybe you don’t attract the attention of a DiNiro, but you are the star of your own show every night. Go ahead, take a bow.