The New York Times Magazine (I know, my fave) has a piece on celebrity chef Katie Lee today, and former Times food critic Frank Bruni details her rise to celeb chef fame. The article also describes how Lee supposedly traded culinary school to be married to Billy Joel, but to assume that the connections made were not perhaps more invaluable is disingenuous. Perhaps this wasn’t what Bruni meant to imply, but I do get weary of the “she gave up her dreams for her other dream—a man” narrative.
When I was a kid, my mother had a habit—at least on a memorable few choice occasions—of criticizing semi-famous women for “sleeping their way to the top.” It was the late eighties, my mama was single after my dad cheated on her with his now-wife, and thankfully for my impressionable psyche, mom’s scorn rarely reached beyond the ranks of local television reporters. Nevertheless, she always made it sound like such a reprehensible thing. Whenever I’m faced with analyzing another woman’s choices, a career woman who is or has been in a high-profile relationship, I cringe as I remember my mom’s rather anti-feminist judgments.
With Lee, it’s complicated at best because the truth is unavoidable, though to be clear, I am not suggesting Lee traded sex and love for success or vice versa. I’m just stating the facts: her career came on the heels of marrying Joel, which might even be an inconvenient truth for her to battle. Even though she’s clearly successful in her own right—she’s hosted Top Chef and was an Iron Chef America judge, in addition to a substantial publishing portfolio and an Early Show gig (seen in above video)—having the right connections never hurt anyone. She’s a gal from West Virginia who met Joel after literally walking into him during a trip to New York. An accompanying friend had enough sense to ask the Piano Man to lunch, since Lee didn’t know who he was, and the rest is, well, now occasionally televised.
Here’s my inevitable gripe that goes beyond this single narrative, which has its own issues at the intersections of fame and feminism. The idea of the “food celebrity” tends to annoy me for one simple reason: the folks associated with this notoriety seem to have little sense of what impact their work has on the environment. Being a vegetarian or vegan isn’t the end all solution to eating more sustainably, but it sure helps. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one Food Network vegetarian cooking show (Pick of the Day). If everyone is so obsessed with being “green,” why is Pick of the Day the anomaly and not becoming the norm? (Is PotD even consistently shown in all regions these days? It doesn’t even have it’s own page on the Food Network website.) As Bruni points out, Lee is vying for her own comfy spot on the network that would enable a whole other level of celebrity that involves selling more cookbooks, branding products, and the ever-enviable frozen food line.
If Lee reaches her goals in her own right, I’m happy to hear it. But I would so love to see more high-profile female chefs making the connections between gender, the environment, and veg*n issues. Wouldn’t you?
Further weekend reading: Peggy Orenstein’s “The Femivore’s Dilemma,” also in the NYT Mag, which may warrant its own blog post but currently has me in such a foul mood that there’s no way I can write a calm, measured analysis.