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Are Celebrity Chefs Good For Food? Sometimes! Maybe!

Jonathan Gold, Nancy Silverton, Ludovic Lefebvre, Susan Feniger, Ilan Hall
Jonathan Gold, Nancy Silverton, Ludovic Lefebvre, Susan Feniger, Ilan Hall
Photo: Daniela Galarza / Eater.com

LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold moderated last night's forum, "Are Celebrity Chefs Good For Food?" where some of Los Angeles' best chefs gathered around to talk about their talent and tenacity. The all-star line up featured Nancy Silverton (Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza), Ilan Hall (The Gorbals), Ludovic Lefebvre (LudoBites), and Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Ciudad, STREET). Though the event sold out fairly quickly, perhaps 100 seats remained vacant in the 650-seat Cotsen Auditorium at the Skirball Cultural Center on Los Angeles' north side. Zocalo Public Square organized the event.

"This is the city of celebrity and the city of chefs, so it makes sense that the celebrity chef was born here," said Gold. Feniger was introduced as the first real Food Network Star; Silverton as the mother of the artisanal bread movement, Lefebvre as Time magazine's Chef of the future, and Ilan Hall as Top Chef season two's winner. Inevitably, the name Wolfgang Puck was thrown about; all agreed that Puck was America's first celebrity chef and that he had the chops to back up his charisma.

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[Photo: Daniela Galarza / Eater.com]

Feniger and Hall had by far the most television exposure, and had the most to say about the celebrity that came from their time on the small screen. "In the 80s, even Mary Sue's hair was a celebrity," exclaimed Gold when talking about Feniger's partner, Mary Sue Milliken in the hey day of their television show, Two Hot Tamales. "There was a point after taping 400 shows where we'd walk down the street and a fireman would say 'Oh My God' you're the Two Hot Tamales!" Feniger admitted that the television exposure was better for business than an article in the LA Times.

Ilan Hall, of the Jewish-Scottish restaurant The Gorbals, talked about cooking on the line in a restaurant in Union Square one week, trying out for Top Chef ("People told me it was the least embarrassing of the reality shows to be on.") the next week, going away to tape the show for a month and then going back to his job as if nothing had happened. "And then the show started to air and it became very apparent how popular the show is," he said.

Gold touched on Hall's decision to open a restaurant first in Los Angeles (Did he do it for the celebrity factor? Because it wasn't New York? "No, it was the weather.") and then in the Alexandria Hotel — a space better known for its low-income housing than its glamor. "It seems to me that you opened the anti-celebrity restaurant," Gold suggested. Ilan admitted to opening something selfish — with a menu he and his friends would enjoy — in an unpopular location.

Ludo, clearly the panel favorite all night with his French accent and boyish pouts, told Gold before the discussion that he didn't feel he belonged among the group, "I have been on Top Chef Masters two times, I lost two times," [raised eyebrows], "I have been on Iron Chef, I lost Iron Chef, so maybe I am famous for this? I don't know." The crowd erupted into giggles more than once at his adorable French charm.

Ludo hinted at being about to launch another round of his popular LudoBites, resulting in a pleased look on Gold's face. Gold then launched into a tale of Ludo's 25 years of French training, and the discussion changed from being about celebrity to being about the traditional training of chefs and appearing on television. "I go to culinary schools and when I ask the students why they want to be a chef, they're talking about television and The Food Network," Gold told the panel, who nodded in unison.

Nancy Silverton, humble as ever, also took issue with her place on the panel. When Ludo looked surprised, she said, "Mario, Wolfgang — they don't need last names. I need a last name — do you?" At which point, the chef best known simply as Ludo, sat back to listen. Gold launched into a review of Silverton's career in pastry, bread, savories, and now mozzarella, which landed a round of applause. Like Feniger, she focused on her time in the kitchen, thinking of everything else as "gravy," shying away mostly from television (except for a few memorable experiences on Julia Child's shows), and believing that what's lasting is the work of your own two hands.

Overall, the panel seemed to agree that enthusiasm and skill used to prevail as assets for television, until more recently, in today's reality show driven line-up of shows, when personality and youth — the antithesis of experience — began to rule. Mario Batali and Julia Child — masters of their craft — were notable celebrity chefs in this panel's eyes. Someone from the audience coughed the name "Sandra Lee."

A question from the audience took things into a different direction. "I just saw Food, Inc... what do you think a chef's role is in all of that?" Silverton was clear and direct in her support of chefs who buy local, organic, and humanely raised protein and produce. She said it's one of the best things about having celebrity as a chef is to be able to influence the buying patterns of the public in a positive way. All agreed that Jaime Oliver had the skill, personality, business acumen, and drive to use his celebrity towards influencing the public in positive ways. In many ways, the panel agreed, he was the ideal celebrity chef.

Daniela Galarza

· All Nancy Silverton Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Ludovic Lefebvre Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Susan Feniger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Ilan Hall Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Jonathan Gold Coverage on Eater [-E-]