12. Feb, 2016

Part 2: The Babes

“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” - Laurie Colwin.

The second generation of female celebrity chefs hail from a variety of backgrounds, but share two characteristics: they are (some were) telegenic, and they understand cross-selling. While some are formally trained chefs, many are self-taught. A common denominator is their more personal and – to varying degrees – flirtatious presenting styles.  

Martha Stewart was declared "the definitive American woman of our time" by New Yorker magazine in 1995. This timeless beauty is widely regarded as the first self-made female billionaire in America, and has at various times been a model, businesswoman, author, actress, TV personality, e-retailer, designer and – briefly – a convict. The one glaring omission on her CV is that she has never been a chef or restaurateur. She has written numerous bestselling books, is the publisher of the Martha Stewart Living magazine, and has hosted two long-running television shows, Martha, which ran from 2005 to 2012, and Martha Stewart Living, which ran from 1993 to 2005.

Martha was born in Jersey City, NJ and is of Polish ancestry.  A model since the age of 15, she supplemented her college scholarship money through modelling jobs. Her clients eventually included the likes of Chanel. In 1976, Stewart started a catering business in her basement with a friend from her modelling days, Norma Collier. Stewart was also hired as the manager of a gourmet food store, the Market Basket, but after a disagreement with the owners opened her own store. This was to be the first step in the establishment of a multi-faceted business empire, based on her personal “brand”. She became fabulously rich by designing exclusive ranges of foods, condiments, cookware and crockery, and product endorsements.

Her first cookery book, Entertaining appeared in 1982 and was followed by Martha Stewart's Quick Cook (1983), Martha Stewart's Hors D'oeuvres (1984), Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts (1985), Quick Cook Menus (1988), and Martha Stewart's Christmas (1989), to name but a few.  At the same time, she also authored dozens of newspaper columns, magazine articles, features on homemaking, and made numerous television appearances on shows like Oprah and Larry King Live.

On 19 October 1999 the holding company of her various businesses, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, was listed on Wall Street. At $38 per share by the end of the first trading day, it made Stewart a billionaire on paper. Stewart was then and continues to be the majority shareholder, commanding 96% control of voting power in the company.

In 2004, Stewart was convicted of insider trading related to her disposal of shares in a company called ImClone, and sentenced to a brief spell in prison. There was speculation that the incident would effectively end her media career, but following her release from prison in March 2005, Stewart launched a highly publicized comeback, and took over the reins at Martha Stewart Living again. She returned to daytime television with The Martha Stewart Show, and appeared in an adapted version of The Apprentice called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. She also made a special appearance on the comedy-drama series Ugly Betty and the long-running Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Stewart's special appeal is to working women who can't throw themselves into housekeeping without thinking of their kitchen as a catering business and their backyards as a garden show. In fact, relatively few of Martha's fans are housewives: 72% of the subscribers to Martha Stewart Living are employed outside the home as managers or professionals. She makes housekeeping cool for the professional woman by professionalizing housekeeping.

The Martha Stewart Show is like the presenter: it is organised and unfrenetic. Unlike just about everything else on TV nowadays, it unscripted banter, perky music, swooping studio shots and jittery handheld cameras. There's just Martha, alone in her garden or kitchen, with her crisply ironed denim shirts, pearl earrings, and honey-toned highlights. She cooks "sinful" foods; few of her recipes are low-fat or especially health-conscious. Her dishes are well thought-out, pleasing to the eye and pallet, and slightly understated. Like the late Baroness Thatcher, Ms Stewart believes that if you have to tell people that you’re a lady, you probably aren’t.

Paula Deen, the American celebrity chef and TV presenter; is a true Southern Belle. She is based in Savannah, Georgia, where she owns and operates The Lady & Sons restaurant with her sons, Jamie and Bobby. She owns a number of other businesses, is a regular contributor to The Food Network, and has published fourteen cookbooks.

Deen was born in Albany, Georgia. In her 20s, she suffered from agoraphobia, and decided to focus on cooking for her family as something she could do without leaving her house. Her grandmother, Irene Paul. had taught her the arts of Southern cooking; and one of the only places she felt safe was at her own stove, making thousands of pots of chicken and dumplings. She later moved to Savannah with her sons. Money was tight, as she was raising both her kids and her younger brother, Earl alone. She tried hanging wallpaper, working as a bank teller, and selling real estate and insurance. When she failed at all of these, Paula started a catering service, making sandwiches and meals, which her sons delivered.

The catering business, The Bag Lady, soon outgrew her kitchen. Her next venture was a restaurant called The Lady, which served traditional Southern dishes. In January 1996 Deen opened her now-famous restaurant, The Lady & Sons, in downtown Savannah. USA Today awarded The Lady & Sons the "International Meal of the Year" accolade in 1999. The speciality of the house is a buffet of Southern comfort foods. In 2008, Deen opened another restaurant, the Paula Deen Buffet, in Tunica, Mississippi. It has an entrance facade modeled on Deen's home in Savannah and features Southern cooking. This was followed in 2015 by Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, her new restaurant and retail concept, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Her signature range of desserts have been sold by Walmart since 2009; the most popular being Apple Crunch Pie, Dark Rum Pecan Pie, Old Fashioned Fudge and St. Louis-style Gooey Butter Cake.

In 1997, Deen self-published The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cooking and The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cooking 2. Both cookbooks featured traditional Southern recipes. She has since published two more Savannah volumes, co-written with Martha Nesbit. Her life story is featured in Extraordinary Comebacks: 201 Inspiring Stories of Courage, Triumph, and Success (2007). Apart from her cook books, Deen has also written a memoir, It Ain't All About the Cookin' (Simon & Shuster. 2007). She launched a lifestyle magazine called Cooking with Paula Deen in November 2005, which has a circulation of more than 7 million copies per month.

Deen's relationship with Food Network dates back to 1999, when she appeared in a number of Doornock Dinners episodes. She also appeared on Ready, Set, Cook! and eventually she got her own show, Paula's Home Cooking, which premiered in November 2002. Since then, she has starred in two more Food Network shows, Paula's Party and Paula's Best Dishes

In June 2013, while engaged in a law suit, Deen admitted in a deposition that she had used racial slurs. Worried about their image, The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract. Undaunted, she announced that she would launch her own network! The network is a full digital experience that lets users access Paula's Southern cooking on computer, smartphones and tablets. The Paula Deen Channel was officially launched in mid-2015.

At the heart of Paula Deen’s popularity – and the dislike for her in some circles – is her populist image: her Southern drawl, unpretentious and expansive personality, and embrace of a rich diet of comfort foods resonates with many people alienated by haute cuisine, bourgeois foodies, and dietary crusaders.  Deen’s appeal is firmly rooted in the realisation that she is so similar to a lot of viewers: she’s plump, loves rich foods, wears outfits far removed from high fashion, and sometimes says crass, insensitive things.

Deen’s style is much like her personality: larger than life, exaggerated Deep South vocabulary and accent, big hair, garish attire, slightly coarse language, relaxed sexual innuendo, and unadulterated enjoyment of food that would make a dietician cringe. In short, she is Joe Sixpack’s idea of a sex symbol. In a nation eager to find scapegoats for pervasive obesity, Deen is an easy target.  In 2011 Anthony Bourdain described her as “the worst, most dangerous person in America.  She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f*#%ing bad for you.  If I were on TV at 7 PM, and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.” Audi alteram partem… 

Nigella Lawson is undoubtedly the best-known of her peer group. A model, journalist, broadcaster, television personality, and author, she is the daughter of Nigel Lawson, a former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vanessa (née Salmon) Lawson, whose family owned the J. Lyons & Co. food and catering business. Though Lawson has enjoyed a successful career in cookery, she is not a trained chef, and does not like being referred to as a "celebrity chef". She has adopted a casual approach to cooking, stating, "I think cooking should be about fun and family. ... I think part of my appeal is that my approach to cooking is really relaxed and not rigid. There are no rules in my kitchen."

After graduating from Oxford, Lawson started work as a book reviewer and restaurant critic, later becoming the deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times in 1986. She then embarked upon a career as a freelance journalist, writing for a number of newspapers and magazines. In 1998, she brought out her first cookery book, How to Eat, which sold 300,000 copies and became a best-seller. Her second book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, won her the British Author of the Year Award in 2002.

In 1999, she launched her own cookery series, Nigella Bites, on Channel 4, accompanied by an eponymous best-selling cookbook. Nigella Bites won Lawson a Guild of Food Writers Award. She hosted the Food Network's Nigella Feasts in the United States in 2006, followed by a three-part BBC Two series, Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, in the UK. This resulted in the commissioning of Nigella Express in 2007. Fame also brought Ms Lawson a fortune: her cookware range, Living Kitchen, alone is valued at £7 million, and she has sold more than 3 million cookery books worldwide to date.

Lawson had an established sense of cooking from her childhood, having had a mother who enjoyed cooking. She conceived the idea of writing a cookbook after she observed a dinner party host in tears because of an unset caramel dessert. How to Eat (1998) featured culinary tips on preparation and saving time, and sold 300,000 copies in the UK. The Sunday Telegraph dubbed it "the most valuable culinary guide published this decade."

Despite the phenomenal success of her books, it is her TV work that made Lawson a household name all over the world. Her first series, Nigella Bites, averaged 1.9 million viewers per show, and won her the Television Broadcast of the Year at the Guild of Food Writers Awards and the Best Television Food Show at the World Food Media Awards in 2001. Nigella Bites, which was filmed in her home in west London, was later broadcast on American television channels E! and Style Network.  Overall, Lawson was well received in the United States. Those who did criticise her often suggested she was too flirtatious; a commentator in the New York Times remarked: "Lawson's sexy roundness mixed with her speed-demon technique makes cooking dinner with Nigella look like a prelude to an orgy".

When Nigella Feasts debuted on the USA's Food Network in 2006, Time magazine wrote a flattering review of the show and remarked: "The real appeal of Feasts ... is her unfussy, wry, practical approach to entertaining and quality comfort food. ... between the luscious camera shots and Lawson's sensual enjoyment of eating, Feasts will leave you wishing for an invite". Although Lawson has become renowned for her flirtatious manner of presenting, she argues "It's not meant to be flirtatious. ... It's intimate, not flirtatious". The perceived overt sexuality of her presentation style has led to Lawson's being called the "queen of food porn". Many commentators have also noted Lawson's ability to engage with both male and female viewers: The Guardian wrote, "Men love her because they want to be with her. Women love her because they want to be her".

Annabel Langbein is a New Zealand celebrity chef, food writer, businesswoman and publisher. She is also a regular radio guest and TV presenter. Her international breakthrough resulted from her 2010 TV show, Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook, a 13-part series filmed at her holiday cabin. The show, along with Eat Fresh, a series of “how-to” demonstrations, have since been distributed worldwide by Freemantle Media, and aired in over 80 countries. She is known for promoting organic food, primarily using seasonal ingredients and is a member of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand.

As a teenager in the 1970s Langbein was a fully-fledged hippie and feminist, railed against domesticity, consumerism and the urban world in general, and left home and school at the age of 16. Her mother took her to Europe in the hope of showing her the 'real world' but on her return she moved to a commune with some friends to enjoy an alternative lifestyle growing vegetables, cooking over a fire and living off the land. For several years she hunted and fished much of her food; caught eels, ran trap lines and jumped out of helicopters for live-deer recovery as a means of making a living. She remarks on her web site: “What I caught I cooked, experimenting endlessly in a learning process that drew where it could from what I had seen in my mother’s kitchen. For the most part, my learning was unfettered by tradition or the rules of any particular school. Some things worked, others failed.”

She started to cook for a living when she went to Gisborne to work as a chef in a friend's restaurant. She realised that she couldn't cook the same food every day and used the opportunity to save some money for an overseas trip. She travelled widely, experimenting with different flavours, and would perhaps have kept on travelling had a serious horse riding accident not forced her to take things easier. She never formally trained as a chef but has a Diploma of Horticulture from Lincoln University in New Zealand. She has also attended residential cooking courses at the Culinary Institute of America.

She has been a food writer since 1984, writing for numerous local and overseas. She also is a regular guest on New Zealand's Newstalk radio network. She has authored 21 cookbooks, which have been published in numerous languages all around the world. Her 2010 book The Free Range Cook (and its updated editions) are available in more than 70 countries and have sold more than 110,000 copies. In 1991 she established the Culinary Institute of New Zealand, a specialist food marketing consultancy, and was responsible for marketing and media campaigns for New Zealand food manufacturers, retailers, and exporters, as well as promoting New Zealand food offshore. For seven years she was a director of New Zealand gourmet cheese company Kapiti.

Her fun, down-to-earth approach, no-fail recipes and clever kitchen tips and tricks have earned her a passionate international following. Her approach to cooking revolves around efficiency: while she loves to cook, she doesn’t want to spend hours in the process. If she can skip or simplify a step and get the same result, that’s first prize. She believes that preparing and sharing simple but delicious food is the cornerstone of a good life, and has made it her mission to empower and inspire the public to eat more fresh, seasonal produce and fewer “bar codes”. Her shows are inspired by daily harvests from her vegetable garden and orchard on the shores of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand’s scenic Southern Alps. I adore her recipes; they are delicious but healthy, impressive yet easy. If only she could get rid of that awful Kiwi accent…

Merrilees Parker is a British celebrity chef, television presenter, food writer and businesswoman. Despite her relative youth – she is only 45 – Parker has seemingly been around forever, hosting her first cookery show at the age of 26. She is mainly known for presenting television programmes combining food and travel (Planet Food and Full on Food) as well as various more traditional cookery programmes. She has worked as a chef at London Fashion Week, and at the Lansdowne in London’s Primrose Hill, earning rave reviews for her no-nonsense cuisine. Alongside her broadcast career, Parker co-runs Pink Food, a high-end catering company which caters for large and prestigious functions such as the annual Cartier International Polo event.

Parker was already passionate about cooking as a young girl, at which time she helped her grandmother, who is half-Portuguese, in the kitchen. At the age of 17, Parker went to France, where she worked in a guest house and greatly impressed the chef. Upon returning to the UK, Parker started work in The Eagle, which was the first Gastro Pub in London. Later, she became the chef at the The Lansdowne in Primrose Hill in London. Here she developed her personal cooking style and received rave reviews. She was also head chef at The Greyhound in Sonning Common. While working for Antony Worrall Thompson's company, Wiz Events, Parker provided consultancy for his restaurants and catered for several events and cookery demonstrations. Her experience at Wiz Events led her to establish Pink Food in partnership with Bernadette Fitzpatrick, also formerly a Worrall Thompson employee.

In 1996, she began her career in television as a researcher on the BBC cookery programme Ready, Steady, Cook! Her debut as presenter came in 1997 on a television programme called Barbecue Bible. Parker became a familiar face as a television chef in 1999 on a long-running BBC series Anything You Can Cook, which she presented together with Brian Turner. Since then she has appeared on the BBC’s House Call, Orgasmic Organic, Great Food Live, Taste and Saturday Kitchen, to name but a few. She also co-starred with Heston Blumenthal and Richard Corrigan on Full on Food. For this programme, she travelled to various cultures to sample their traditional cooking. As contributor to the US show Planet Food, she has made a host of travel and cookery documentaries featuring the cuisine and chefs of inter alia the Caribbean, Germany, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Scandinavia.

Her no-nonsense cooking style places emphasis on the need to adapt to the target audience. The range of food offered by her catering company serves corporate events, posh clubs, children’s parties and more. Moreover, she presents her dishes in a passionate, confident manner. While demonstrating her cooking, she discusses the benefits of organic and good ingredients and focuses on how people can easily follow that recipe. While she may not be as drop-dead gorgeous as some of her peers, her gregarious nature, spontaneous manner and sense of humour combine to make her shows a pleasure to watch.

My favourite Merrilees moment happened during Saturday Kichen, as she was showing Antony Worrall Thompson how to make a dish featuring two chicken breast fillets. AWT, who had obviously been taking surreptitious peeps at her cleavage, blurted out: “Anyway, there you go: you have two lovely breasts… ahem, chicken breasts!”

“TV cookery is a lot like internet porn - the overwhelming majority of its audience will never ever get to act out what's happening on screen.” - skint foodie.