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Review: Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

Photos: Supermensch

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One can tell from the title that Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, the new film by Mike Myers, is less a balanced documentary than it is a simple hagiography. It's the kind of romp through the golden era of fill-in-the-blank industry led by a crafty benign saint also seen in The Kid Stays in the Picture or An Honest Liar. Who is Shep Gordon, you ask, and what is his legend?

Shep Gordon is the man behind every man in music or television or, germane here, studio kitchen. He was the manager — though that word doesn't begin to encompass his myriad impresario responsibilities — for everyone from Alice Cooper (introduced to him by Jimi Hendrix, no big deal) to Teddy Pendergrass to Blondie to Ann Murray. He is also a chef, a Buddhist, and the godfather of the celebrity chef movement.

The vast majority of the film focuses on his music years. But in 1993, Gordon became the manager for the first generation of celebrity chefs: men like Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme, and Charlie Trotter. This important, albeit brief, segment of Supermensch is of existential interest to us here. It is safe to say there would be no Food Network, no Bravo, probably no Eater without Shep Gordon.

Because criticisms of a biographical film veer invariably into ad hominem attacks — and I think, by and large, the movie is inoffensive and Mr. Gordon is a pretty great guy though "supermensch" might be overdoing it — I will restrict my observations to a few germane areas of the film. This means I will not address whether one can call a man who once wore a t-shirt that read "No Head No Backstage Pass" a supermensch.

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Let's pick up the story in 1977, when Gordon met French chef Roger Vergé in Cannes at his restaurant Le Moulin des Mougins. Vergé, the father of nouvelle cuisine, was already a culinary rock star, perhaps the first of his kind. He had three Michelin stars and regularly embarked on live roadshows across the world. "I didn't know who he was," says Gordon, upon first meeting the chef "but I immediately decided he was someone I wanted to learn from." Gordon remembers Vergé sitting that evening next to Pablo Picasso. But Gordon, as he was for many years at a time, was extremely high and Pablo Picasso had been dead for four years by then. He asked Vergé to be his "Grasshopper." Vergé was like WTF?

But Vergé and Gordon became genuine friends. Gordon attended cooking school and the two men traveled extensively together. "What I learned from Mr. Vergé," says Gordon, "is that you can be successful and happy. I had only seen success and misery." Most importantly for our purposes, as you'll see later on, Gordon took from Vergé this: "His joy came from always putting the comfort of other people before him." Interestingly, Vergé's philosophy — of inhaling other people's pain and suffering and exhaling loving kindness — closely mimics the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Gordon, evidently attracted to ideas like that, eventually became a Buddhist (and has cooked for HH Dalai Lama.)

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After a decade of friendship, Gordon became Vergé's manager. Vergé, he discovered, was regularly forbidden from eating at the venues wherein his seminars took place since he was considered "the help." He also wasn't paid, very well or at all. (This depressingly mimics an earlier incident with Teddy Pendergrass on the chitlin' circuit.) Wolfgang Puck also confided to Gordon that Vergé's fate was shared by many chefs. Soon, by his own telling, Gordon was set upon by 35 chefs — Nobu Matisharu, Emeril, Wolfgang, et all — who asked him to help them during a lunch at Spago. In 1993, he founded Alive Culinary Resources to serve this new clientele. "The only place they made money was cooking in a building," bemoans Gordon. "Nobody had a clear path how to monetize their talent and expand it."

Gordon instinctively knew chefs had to sell products but he also knew they had to be celebrities first. "How do you make a person think of a chef as a celebrity if they never have before?" he asked, "Television." And so he offered up his roster, gratis, in exchange for commercial airtime to hawk any product they desired to the newborn TV Food Network.

Video: Pitch For the Food Network

Soon after launching the careers of Prudhomme, Trotter, Puck and, most importantly, Lagasse, Gordon retired to host dinner parties in his Maui home. They were legendary affairs where talking business was forbidden and where Gordon brought to life Vergé's maxim: to put the comfort of his guests before his own. They were, by all accounts, truly magical evenings full of warmth, friendship, fellowship, and pulled pork.

But in the world beyond his yard, his Adam continued to grow. Without launching into a pedantic diatribe, I'd suggest the connection between the idea of a celebrity chef and the current culinary scene is fairly direct and fairly insidious. Concomitant with the rise of the celebrity chef is the diminishing of Vergé's guiding principle: selflessness. The two are inversely proportional: since central to the project of celebrity is the idea of self and self-aggrandizement, but central to the project of hospitality is the idea of Vergenian selflessness. This too is the legacy of Shep Gordon.

I'm not saying today's chefs are hell bent on making the diner uncomfortable but I have discerned a distinct lack of concern for the diner. A certain set-in-stone notion of "house rules" — which, by its very nature, sets up an adversarial relationship with the restaurant — has become par for the course. Gordon is not in any way directly responsible for the Cesar Ramirezes of the world, or for the metastasization of elitist masochistic tasting tables in general. His hand, though, is felt in the commodification and celebritization of chefs. As a young man, he made rock stars into stars; as an older one he made chefs into rock stars.

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How much of this can one really lay at the feet of Gordon? It depends on whether you judge someone's responsibility in relation to the intent or the effect of their actions. Gordon intended to — and did — empower poorly treated chefs, which is great. But the legacy to which that led is more ambiguous. Effectively, he gave the chef profession steroids in stereo. Some celebrity chefs burned brightly but benignly. Tom Colicchio. Tom Motherfucking Colicchio is the best example of a celebrity chef who uses his fame for good. But others turned into cynical Flavortown roughnecks, racist biddies and petite tyrants. And even those less famous yearned either to be more famous or to eschew fame itself by embracing surliness. Either way, the diner loses.

It's not just diners who suffer from the celebrity chef culture. Chefs lose too. Obviously, Vergé, Puck or Prudhomme were not "noble savages," happy to be bilked. But, as Gordon himself said, the secret to Vergé's happiness had nothing to do with a product line or a television show or even the Michelin stars. It had to do with putting the comfort of other people before him. And this has changed.

I go to a lot of food festivals and speak with a fair amount of chefs. Many of them — though perhaps I just bring out the unhappiness in everyone with whom I speak — aren't very happy. They complain about the grind, the commodification, the media, the business of empire building, how much they miss actually cooking. Perhaps this is what is meant by "shop talk" but I do wonder if this unhappiness — borne from the very pure intention of Gordon twenty years ago — is not his legend but his legacy.

Of course, that isn't mentioned in the film, for it stains the saint in question. But it's impossible not to see the poisoned fruit to which Gordon's talent gave rise, regardless of how pure the seed or Edenic the garden.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Video: Supermensch Trailer

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