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What Celebrity Chefs’ Cookbooks Reveal About Inequality in Cultural Fields

posted Oct 29, 2015, 7:54 AM by A Rodney   [ updated Nov 9, 2015, 6:52 AM ]

*This was originally posted on the Canadian Sociological Association Culture Cluster Blog*

Whether you’re channel surfing or browsing in a bookstore, it’s hard to ignore the presence of celebrity chefs and the cultural objects they produce across a variety of platforms. While we think of a chef as someone who has been formally trained to cook in a professional capacity, the celebrity chef may be an amateur cook. The common thread between these media personalities is that they provide instruction and entertainment on cooking and food-competition programs.

Celebrity chefs exist at a nexus of culture, media and fame. Their food-related personalities are created and elevated in the media and their image takes on a value much like a brand. As celebrities, they are also vehicles for social meanings. A celebrity conveys – either directly or indirectly – social values, such as the meaning of work, and achievement, or the definition of gendered and racialized beliefs.

Historians tell us that certain chefs have had a degree of fame since as far back as the 16th century, but today’s chefs are distinguished by the significance of celebrity culture which is exceptionally visual, personal, and is transmitted at an increasingly rapid pace through many different forms of media including books, television, magazines, newspapers and social media. Today we not only know what kind of food Jamie Oliver cooks, but we may even know about his skiing holiday with friends or that he wants an “intimate tattoo” for his 40th birthday.

One of the first television hosts in North America was Julia Child, who had a famous PBS show called, “The French Chef”. What distinguishes historic figures (like Julia Child) from the current slate of cooking personalities is that the former were far more focused on instructional cooking. Things began to change in the 1990s with the arrival of Emeril, and his trademark showmanship style of cooking, which happened in front of a live studio audience. Suddenly, it was no longer enough to stand behind a stovetop and instruct. The new goal was more explicitly about entertaining.

Today’s cooking personalities offer recipes and instruction about cooking techniques, but they also provide an emphasis on their idealized lifestyles and personalities. In 1961, Julia Child’s debut cookbook was titled, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” while forty years later, Nigella Lawson’s debut was more ambitious: “How to be a Domestic Goddess”.  People watch Nigella Lawson not just to learn about how to make a specific dish, but to admire her lifestyle, her attractiveness, and her beautiful home.

Another quality that differentiates today’s food celebrity landscape is the scale on which it exists. Even with the proliferation of television channels, Food Network still draws in a considerable viewership. It is watched nightly by millions of viewers and consistently ranks in the top ten cable networks. And aside from merely attracting viewers and fans, celebrity chefs earn big. In 2012, Forbes named Gordon Ramsay and Rachael Ray as top-earning chefs, with incomes of $38 million and $25 million respectively.

The culinary world is a rich case for scholarly attention because of the increasing permeability of its boundaries. Celebrity chefs today go beyond the stereotype of the white, male French chef. On Food Network and in bookstores, you will find women, people of colour, multicultural cuisines, home cooks and highbrow to lowbrow food. Men like Jamie Oliver are also entering the domestic kitchens, and bringing new symbolic capital to home cooking (just as women enter professional kitchens).

Yet, research tells us that home-cooking is still traditionally gendered as women’s work while in the public realm of the restaurant kitchen, the professional chef has long been considered a male role.

As the impetus for our recent article in Poetics, we (myself, along with co-authorsJosée Johnston and Phillipa Chong) were interested in whether the self-presentations of celebrity chefs shift social boundaries and social inequalities, or whether they reinforce them. Our work, entitled “Making change in the kitchen? A study of celebrity cookbooks, culinary personas, and inequality”, examines the gendered, classed and racialized portrayals of celebrity chefs in their cookbooks.

To do this, we drew on the cultural sociology concept of “producer personas”, or in this case, “culinary personas”. Sociologist Patti Lynne Donze tells us that personas are “fabricated” identities that draw upon shared conventions of “biography, style, and attitude” to emotionally engage others. We can think of a persona as a kind of human brand. The fabricated quality, however, is not synonymous with falseness.  A celebrity chef may genuinely love food in both their public and private life. In a Goffmanian sense, the sociological point we are making is that actors perform different versions of the “self” depending on the “role” required. Personas can’t simply be made up out of thin air. They draw from existing cultural ideas about race, class, gender and so forth.

In the case of culinary personas, celebrity chefs strategically emphasize certain features of their personality to differentiate themselves from other celebrity chefs.However, their personas tend to congregate in a fixed number of categories. This is similar to research on musical personas – there are only a certain number of genres available. So our goal in this paper was to figure out what culinary personas were present in the world of celebrity chefs, and whether women and minorities had equal access to these culinary personas

To operationalize our research question, we conducted a discourse analysis of cookbooks by chefs who hosted television programs on major networks. From this reading, we were able to identify 7 culinary personas, 3 of which exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics (homebody, home stylist, pin-up), and 4 that exhibited elements of hegemonic masculinity (chef-artisan, maverick, gastrosexual, self-made man). These persona types reveal how gender, race, and class intersect in the creation of a persona.

By identifying these seven persona types, we learned that the realm of culinary personas is highly gendered, even though some celebrity chefs are moving across traditional gender boundaries. Professional chefs, like Jamie Oliver and Tyler Florence, do value the home kitchen. And some female chefs have risen to new heights of professional success, like Iron Chef Cat Cora.

However, traditional gendered tropes in the kitchen persist through these culinary personas. They demonstrate the continued relevance of a historic division between the relatively devalued female home-cook, and the publicly celebrated male-chef. With the exception of the gastrosexuals, women are still presenting themselves, by and large, as gate-keepers of family health and domestic cookery. In contrast culinary artists and artisans (a group made up almost exclusively of men) were depicted in masculine terms. In these ways, the status inequalities around gender are reproduced through persona conventions.

Our findings show how the structure and stratification of culinary personas has implications for the reproduction of status hierarchies. It is not just overt discrimination or prejudice that creates status inequalities. Culinary personas indirectly perpetuate inequalities in the culinary field by relying on and reproducing pre-existing sources of authority and expertise. These findings support research documenting how high status groups are more able to brand-themselves and “propertize” their identities as celebrities. Our research suggests that not all culinary roles are equally accessible to new entrants to the field, nor are all chefs equally able to move between different personas. And those with more limited options are women and racialized minorities.

If you’re interested in reading the full text of our article, Poetics has providedfree access to it until January 22, 2015 at the following link:,6w-XMWUe