Restaurant Life

The Indestructible Bravado of The Male Celebrity Chef

No one would have predicted controversy when Ming Tsai, the acclaimed celebrity chef and owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts (now closed), recently took the stage for an interview as part of Boston University’s “Curated Cuisine” series. While the moderator, Irene Li, inquired about his career history and culinary inspirations, Tsai reclined looking red-faced (perhaps from overindulging on Pinot Grigio), shamelessly shilling for his line of frozen vegan products and interrupting with snarky remarks. He clearly intends to be funny, though much of his humor falls painfully flat.

Before Ms. Li can even commence the interview, Tsai rudely interjects with a cringey, borderline racist dad joke directed toward the audience, undermining her command of the proceedings. “What’s the difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi?” Tsai asks rhetorically. Li and the audience seem shellshocked for a moment. “Dubai don’t like the Flintstones but Abu-Dhabi-Doo!” he answers, impressed with himself and seemingly the only person in the auditorium at all amused. Then in another more macabre moment, Tsai reaches for his glass of wine and pauses before drinking it. “Did you roofie me?” he asks Li. “That’s ok, I roofied you.” Referring to the act of drugging someone before a planned sexual assault, Tsai’s casual mention of roofie-ing a woman is a bizarre non-sequitur, to say the least, and once again, amuses no one but himself.

What stands out in this interview is the indestructible bravado that Tsai brings with him to the stage. As with many of his contemporary TV chef personalities, their celebrity persona often subsumes their actual persona (if there is one). In the aftermath of so many well-publicized harassment cases involving high-profile chefs like Mario Batali and the industry’s painful reckoning with abuse, the puffy-chested celebrity persona isn’t necessarily the one that Tsai should be flaunting in public right now. The moment calls for humility, not self-aggrandizement.

At one point in the interview, Tsai goes on a diatribe about the intricacies of preparing Peking Duck. After describing how chefs use an air compressor inserted into the bird’s throat to separate the skin from the meat, he wonders aloud (jokingly) about the Chinese chefs who originally came up with the technique. “Think about those six or eight really drunk Chinese chefs hanging out in China, probably stoned out of their heads on opium,” he says. “And someone stands up, Wong Fu stands up and says—I’m gonna go blow a duck!” For her part, Li does yeoman’s work maintaining her composure. But to anyone who’s ever worked in a professional kitchen under a misogynistic regime, the dynamic of seeing a woman maintaining quiet professionalism in the face of inappropriate sexual innuendo is a familiar dynamic.

A significant portion of what Tsai said during his interview was substantive, if you’re able to filter out the scatological comments and off-color attempts at humor. He made clear that he believes that women deserve more respect in professional kitchens, citing the example of having served as a judge on Guy Fieri’s “Tournament of Champions.” During his four seasons judging on the show, the panel blind-tasted dishes and found the work of female chefs to be consistently superior. But when Li asks if the Boston restaurant industry will ever have its #MeToo moment, he balks. “Have we not?” he asks, incredulously. “Have we not been talking about it enough?”

Celebrity chefs like Ming Tsai need to do better
Ming Tsai flipping his frozen line of Ming’s Bings

He assures Li that “none of us are like that,” referring to himself and his fancy chef buddies like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. It’s not really clear what “like that” means to him exactly. When he makes a joke about a social media snafu where he erroneously praised a chef’s delicious “crispy dick,” while meaning to praise his duck breast, it feels very much “like that.” In fairness, it’s unlikely that Ming Tsai is a terrible person, or that he is even unabashedly chauvinist in the way that he came across on stage. But either way he is a product of the era of TV chef worship that inflates egos and an attention economy that incentivizes shocking behavior by labeling it “rockstar.” That said, it’s impossible to watch this bizarre interview and not wonder, especially in the darker moments, if a chef like Tsai has learned nothing from the events of the last five years in terms of how a professional chef should comport himself. Or perhaps he simply hasn’t learned how to quiet his inner voice.

I worked alongside Mario Batali for years at Babbo, so I am no stranger to co-existing with a chef’s engorged self-image and unchecked largesse. Over time, the dysfunctional behavior becomes so normalized, so deeply ingrained in their mythological persona that they don’t even know they’re doing it. As most employees, bystanders, and assault survivors will tell you about Batali at the time, he became a different person when he was drunk on amaro and attention. That’s obviously no excuse for whatever transgressions and violence he perpetrated while in that condition. All of this to say that the impermeable male celebrity chef archetype was fabricated long ago. The food media certainly did its part to perpetuate the mythology. At the very least what Ming Tsai’s forgettable performance shows is that celebrity still creates a non-stick surface for certain male chefs to rely on whenever they step in their own shit.

Tsai issued a boilerplate apology on social media shortly after the event. “Moving forward I commit to being more mindful and respectful of the topics that are important to others,” he wrote on his Instagram page, “and to approach all conversations more empathetically.” But it’s worth noting that he never publicly apologized to Li, and it wasn’t until Li posted a clip of his roofie remark that he issued his statement. Without public outcry, big-name chefs rarely take responsibility for their actions. Let’s not forget that Batali would probably still be getting drunk and handsy if not for the extraordinary work of investigative journalists like Kim Severson, Julia Moskin (both of the New York Times) and Serena Dai (formerly of Eater).

This is beginning to feel like going through a messy breakup with a serially abusive partner. After a while, apologies are meaningless. If they can’t commit to making real changes, then the relationship is untenable. I’m not sure it does very much good to take chefs like Tsai to task every time they act like assholes in public anymore. The problem lies much deeper in the durable mechanisms that drive celebrity chef culture, still an unapologetically male domain that hasn’t changed an awful lot since #MeToo. Accomplished female chefs, which Li herself is, deserve to be respected in real time, not paid lip service after yet another sexist episode.

It isn’t cancel culture that’s driving the outrage. It’s exhaustion from the never-ending spectacle, brought on by the fact that we have to keep talking about this over and over till we’re blue in the face. For those of us who’d like to see our faith in the chef community restored, Tsai’s behavior is a major step backward. We desperately need to hear culinary leaders like him talk about how we can collectively forge a better future for the restaurant industry, but instead we get more tasteless jokes about fellating poultry and admiring crispy dicks.

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There Are James Cordens Dining In Restaurants Every Night

I always laugh at the latest bout of performative outrage over celebrities abusing the staff at restaurants, as James Corden allegedly did at Balthazar this week. Not because I think it’s funny, because of course it isn’t, but as a former server I know this entitled behavior is quite common in restaurants. If you haven’t read the news yet, Corden apparently dressed down the staff at Keith McNally’s Manhattan bistro when several mistakes were made preparing with his wife’s bespoke “egg-yolk only” omelette with Gruyère. Reports claim that Corden repeatedly admonished his servers, yelling insults like: “You can’t do your job!” and “Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook my omelette myself?”

The situation called to mind a similar row involving “Iron Chef” Cat Cora back in 2019 when Cora was accused of going ballistic and flipping off the hostess at Chicago’s Alinea after she was refused a table (even though her party arrived without a reservation). Cora vehemently denied the allegations until the owner Nick Kokonas released surveillance tapes that showed her getting aggressive with the staff. Like McNally, Kokonas used social media as a bullhorn to air his grievances and the food media, as they always do, worked themselves into a froth about it for weeks.

The most amusing part of it to me was that restaurateurs like McNally train their staff to be docile when guests become ornery, like Corden did. It’s generally unacceptable for servers to speak up for themselves when customers talk down to them. I’ve had many coworkers lose their jobs for talking back even though they were clearly justified in doing so. The prevailing wisdom in hospitality circles is that nothing good can come from challenging the primacy of the guest’s needs. That leaves staff impotent in situations like this and vulnerable to being abused by people like Corden who get aroused by the power dynamics. It happens everyday restaurants. The perpetrators forget, but the servers don’t. These situations live on in their restaurant nightmares for years.

One inalienable truth about the Corden and Cora situations is that the people who deserve an apology, the staff, rarely get one. Lost in the posturing and Instagram shaming is that a group of hard-working and likely exhausted restaurant workers were trying their best to make these people happy. No one was conspiring to hijack Corden’s leisurely lunch. There wasn’t a vindictive line cook who prefers Jimmy Kimmel purposefully slipping traces of egg white into Mr. Corden’s wife’s omelette. The cooks probably separated the whites from the yolks to order which—especially during a crazy busy Balathazar service—isn’t easy to do without flaw.

Balthazar is still one of New York City’s busiest restaurants

Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in over the twenty-year span of my career has had guests, often regulars, that mistreat staff. Rarely are these individuals refused service or asked to raise the standards of their behavior. Instead, restaurant workers are conditioned to hold their tongues and “kill them with kindness.” Unfortunately, we end up killing ourselves, on the inside, when we’re repeatedly asked to administer triage to aggrieved guests who have no legitimate grievances.

The Corden situation, trivial though it is, should remind us that we need to re-examine the lob-sided power dynamic inherent to hospitality. The fallout from the pandemic has exposed how the old rules of engagement have become a hindrance to recruiting talent. The labor shortage is at least partially born out of the fact that former restaurant workers are tired of cowering to undeserving rich people like Corden, especially when doing so puts their health at risk. If hungry people want restaurants to be able to find adequate staff, they need to accept a new framework for how they should behave when they dine in them. Allowing James Cordens to throw hissy fits like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory every time there’s a mistake in their order is simply unsustainable.

Within less than twenty-four hours, Corden apologized to McNally personally, and his ban was reversed. Unsurprisingly, there were no reports of Corden directly apologizing to the staff he’d abused. I wonder if the staff would be so charitable about allowing Corden back into the restaurant if they were given a say. My guess is they wouldn’t, because they’d rather that table be occupied by someone with a good conscience and a clean diaper. To an owner, faceless tables represent naked sales. They just want the seats full. To staff, on the other hand, how the occupants of each table comport themselves can dramatically affect the tenor of their night.

The fact is that most restaurant workers don’t have time to dwell on the James Cordens of the world. Our sanity is challenged every night by guests’ outlandish behavior, and it always exceeds our wildest imagination. “You can’t make this shit up” is one of the most common phrases uttered behind the curtain of every restaurant. We maintain sanity by filtering out the impurities and assuring ourselves that it’s not us, it’s them. There will always be another James Corden, and we’re better off saving our energy for the next battle than wasting our breath on carpool karaoke. Plus, the rent is due, and we probably have to work a double tomorrow.

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