The fame game

07 April 2000
The fame game

The very public falling-out of Kit Chapman and Phil Vickery is a cautionary tale. For nearly 10 years, the proprietor of the Castle Hotel in Taunton and his former head chef worked closely together, each respectful of the other's talents and abilities.

But their closeness was ripped apart last summer when Vickery's departure from the Castle was followed by a claim for unfair dismissal. The case, heard at an employment tribunal in Exeter in March, found in favour of Vickery, although he was deemed to be partly to blame (Caterer, 16 March, page 10). A financial settlement will be finalised tomorrow (7 April).

Celebrity status

Even now, neither man can quite comprehend how and why the relationship turned sour. Vickery had reached a crossroads in his professional and personal life, but a significant factor in the breakdown of the relationship was the increasing concern that Chapman had over Vickery's growing commitments outside the hotel, linked to his TV celebrity status. Such a situation would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

The opportunity for chefs to escape the confines of their kitchens and move on to our TV screens has become a powerful magnet through the burgeoning of daytime television, satellite and cable channels. As far as broadcasters are concerned, cookery shows are a popular and financially lucrative means of filling the extra screen hours. But the hospitality industry is divided in its views on the impact of chefs on TV.

As chefs increasingly take on the kind of celebrity status that comes with television exposure, opportunities have also arisen for them to appear on chat shows and game shows, and even take on the odd role of presenter themselves. This, in turn, leads to the spin-off world of books, endorsements, advertising and promotional work - all of which eat into the demands of a chef who might still have a restaurant or hotel kitchen to run. Is it really possible to combine these two careers?

Chef-consultant Pat McDonald says it is not. "You cannot be in two places at one time. It's okay to do the odd TV appearance, but you can't seriously consider doing a TV series and running a full-time restaurant kitchen." McDonald, though, does combine the two - but only by opening his 24-seat Epicurean restaurant in Pershore, Worcestershire, just two evenings a week and giving the rest of his time to consultancy work and TV. "When customers come to my restaurant, they know I will be cooking in the kitchen. I think if your name is above the door, that is the way it should be."

However, Brian Turner, chef-proprietor of Turner's, London, believes that careful planning and having a good team in the restaurant can allow a chef to combine the two careers. "The illusion is, with repeats, that you are on the TV all the time," he says. "But the reality is that shows such as Ready Steady Cook are recorded in the afternoon between services, so I can be back in the restaurant for the evening."

For David Couborough, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Portfolio International, the rise of the television chef has been an enormously powerful tool in the recruitment of young people into the industry. "Chefs such as Gary Rhodes and Jamie Oliver are charismatic and their appearance on television may reach an audience of seven to eight million people - figures we could never hope to achieve in any recruitment drive," he says. "But while it might be okay for a chef-proprietor to take time out for TV, problems arise when employers are taken for a ride and chefs want to have their cake and eat it. They want the stability of a full-time salary as a head chef, but they also want the rewards that a television career can bring."

Antony Worrall Thompson, a regular on our television screens through his work on the BBC programmes Food & Drink and Ready Steady Cook, knows only too well how difficult it is to combine TV work with being an employee. As managing director of restaurant group Simpsons of Cornhill, he was at loggerheads with his employers about the time he spent on media work. "It is impossible to work for an employer and do TV, unless the employer is big-hearted and prepared to remain in the background," he says.

And that is exactly what Paul Montalto, founder of Elite Restaurants, does in his support of Tony Tobin's television career, recognising that every TV appearance Tobin makes is good publicity for his company. As executive chef of Elite, Tobin cooks in the kitchens of the company's two fine-dining restaurants, the Dining Room in Reigate, Surrey, and the Dining Room 2 in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, as well as consulting on the menus for its 10 Tortellini restaurants.

"We decided early on that I would remain behind the scenes running the business, while Tony would be the front guy," says Montalto. "An opportunity such as television comes only once in a lifetime and it would be wrong of me to stand in his way. As long as the restaurant is full, the staff are organised and customers are happy with the results from the kitchen, then Tony can spend three or four days a week on TV."

In reality, Tobin spends only two afternoons a month filming for Ready Steady Cook, although this may be supplemented by work such as the Spice World series he has just completed for the Carlton Food Network.

Although Tobin will now happily walk away from the restaurants to concentrate on his TV work, that wasn't always the case. "In the early days, I felt very guilty about leaving the kitchen and there was resentment from the staff that I was somewhere else earning extra money," he says. Initially, Elite could not afford to pay for a head chef and the chefs left to run the kitchen lacked confidence without Tobin's leadership. But now this has been rectified. Head chefs are installed in both Dining Room restaurants and staff are trained to cope in Tobin's absence.

Sodexho, formerly known in the UK as Gardner Merchant, also recognises the benefits of having a high-profile employee. It took on Gary Rhodes to open City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square in London, as well as a string of Rhodes & Co outlets around the country, specifically because of his media persona combined with his culinary talents. His contract, which allows him a specific amount of time for television each year, works to the benefit of both parties.

Apart from the practicalities of combining TV appearances with a professional kitchen, there is also concern that too many young chefs coming into the industry are being blinded by the ambition to become TV stars. Michel Roux, chef-proprietor of the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, bemoans the fact that few youngsters want to focus on being a professional chef any more. "So many daydream about going on TV instead of thinking about the enormous enjoyment that can be gained from being a cook," he says. "Much of the cookery we see on television today is pure pantomime. If you want to act, you should go to drama school."

Turner points out that he was 40 years old when he made his first television appearance 14 years ago. He therefore tries to play down any ambitions young people may have to cook on TV, urging them first to go to college and gain a sound grounding as a chef. "Once they've got the culinary skills, they can then work on their communication skills - TV requires a combination of both," says Turner.

Indeed, being able to present and entertain is a prerequisite of a TV chef, and thus Chapman is dismissive of programmes such as Ready Steady Cook in terms of showing the art and craft of cooking. "The chefs are purely there for their entertainment value, not for their cooking skills," he says. However, Chapman does believe there is a place for programmes such as Gary Rhodes' New British Classics and those made by Rick Stein, which inspire and educate as well as promote the culinary arts.

Nearly 10 years ago, Chapman filmed his own series, Simply the Best, in which he chronicled a history of British regional cookery and produce. "As proprietor, I was in a position to do it - a working head chef does not have that choice," he says. Ironically, it was on this programme that Vickery made his first appearance.

Vickery believes much of the industry criticism of chefs on TV is down to envy. "Many people would love the kudos and publicity television would bring to their business," he says. Describing the past nine months of uncertainty in the build-up to the tribunal as a nightmare, Vickery now hopes he can move on and find himself another job in the industry. "I've had three or four serious offers, but haven't quite found the right one yet." He hopes to continue working on Ready Steady Cook, due to start filming again in the summer.

Meanwhile, Chapman is concerned that the promotion of chefs through the media is inflating their self-importance out of control. "Unfortunately, it has manifested itself in all sorts of ways - through anti-social and hostile behaviour or ludicrous statements from narrow-minded chefs who have resigned because they have failed to understand what the customer wants and interpreted a request for simpler food as being required to ‘dumb down'," he says.

"Chefs need to understand one very simple fact. Food represents no more than 50% of the pleasure that people derive from eating out - the rest comes from the welcome, the quality of service, the smiles on the faces of the waiting staff. Research shows that customers will forgive a minor lapse in the food as long as the service is good. But what they will not tolerate is an unfriendly welcome and poor service, no matter how excellent the food is. The chef's best ambassador and ally is his restaurant manager. And I think the time is now right for the elevation of the restaurant manager to take some of the pressures away from the chef."

Teaching through television

For Brian Turner, the fact that he has the opportunity to talk to and teach people about food on television should go a long way towards answering the critics of chefs on TV. "We can reach a far greater proportion of the population this way than if we just stayed in our restaurants," he says. "My experience is that people are inspired by what they see on TV and try things out."

Antony Worrall Thompson agrees, pointing out that television has increased the public's knowledge about food, often introducing them for the first time to ingredients such as crème fraîche and lemon grass. "On Ready Steady Cook, we regularly use good professional principles, whether it is making pasta or mayonnaise," he says. "With schools no longer providing the opportunity for children to cook and fewer mums cooking at home, Ready Steady Cook is often the only opportunity children get to see food being prepared from scratch."

For Nick Nairn, chef-proprietor of Nairn's in Glasgow, television has given him such a high media profile in Scotland that barely a day passes without his name appearing in the Scottish press. "I now believe is it my role to use this platform to encourage people to cook and eat more healthily," he says.

Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 6 - 12 April 2000

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