Chefs and cookbooks have existed since the dawn of time; just think about the Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria or On the subject of cooking that with its chapters dedicated to pulses, vegetables, poultry or seafood is not so different from modern books. Recipes and knowledge about food may pass within families, from generation to generation but it is also exciting to look further afield in search for new products and techniques. Masterchef, Great British Menu and other TV programmes show the appeal of professional chefs. Celebrity chefs play an important role in expanding our food horizons; in transmitting techniques, products and recipes that broaden the skill sets passed from generation to generation.

While early cookbooks were usually anonymous as they used to be collections of recipes gathered from different sources since the seventeenth century, we find the names of the cooks. Nowadays cookbooks and a popular name go hand in hand. Celebrity chefs not only sell a type of food but they also sell themselves as a character. It is not difficult to see the differences between the sensual Nigella Lawson and her indulgent cooking and the boy next door Jamie Oliver and his easy to prepare Mediterranean inspired food. Sometimes not without controversy as Oliver’s interpretation of the classic Spanish dish, paella was met with scepticism because of the use of chorizo.

Hannah Woolley on the inside cover of one of her books, The gentlewomans companion, or, A guide to the female sex (1682). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Earlier authors were not as easily identifiable as sometimes they wrote about other subjects other than just cooking. Such as Hannah Woolley, who not only wrote her The cooks guide (1664) but also was well known as a medicine practitioner, even in a period when medicine was not traditionally associated with women. Her contemporary Robert May, a master-cook in several households, might have been one of the first professional cooks writing about their occupation in The Accomplisht Cook (1665).

The French chef Marie-Antoine Careme was probably the first cook whose fame went beyond the people he cooked for and his 5 volumes work on cooking, L'Art de la Cuisine Française (1833-34) became very well known as a guide for high cooking. But high cooking is not always what celebrity chefs are all about.

Marie-Antoine Careme. Credit: Wikipedia Commons. Public Domain Mark

Another Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, became one of the most well known chefs of Victorian Britain not only because of his work at the Reform Club but also because of his evergetism. He became interested in finding recipes that could alleviate famine in Ireland during the potato crisis. He also found a way to feed the army by designing the Soyer stove for the troops in Crimea. A war where he met another Victorian celebrity, Mary Seacole for whom food had an important role within her medical work.

The Soyer stove being used in a kitchen camp during the Crimean War.  Wood engraving, 1855.  Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Wars have an impact on the resources available and celebrity chefs have helped populations to navigate through times of scarcity. To Soyer and Seacole’s names, we can add that of Marguerite Patten. Through her BBC Radio programme, Kitchen Front that aired during WWII, she helped people with her recipes that used the limited products that were available at the time such as dry eggs or margarine.

There are other instances in which celebrity chefs have used their fame to create awareness of what people should eat, or not. We might no longer think of food as medicine but undoubtedly some products are healthier than others. Jamie Oliver conducted a campaign to increase the quality of the infamous school dinners. It all started as a TV documentary, Jamie’s School Dinners, (aired between February and March 2005) that highlighted the poor quality of the food served at schools as it contained an excessive quantity of junk food. The programme led to a reduction of the times a week that fried food was served as well as prohibiting soft drinks. This outcome did not always please those involved. Students complained about the lack of fried products, perhaps one can argue that an apple cannot beat the flavour of a Bernard Matthews’ “Turkey twizzlers”.  The cost of the healthy meals also surpassed enormously the budget that schools had to provide dinners.

Celebrity cooking is not always about economy and health. Celebrity chefs promote on many occasions the ideal of a more indulgent life through cooking. Nigella Lawson might have perfected the concept of “domestic goddess” but indulgence was also present in Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861 and still in print.

Isabella Beeton by Maull & Polyblank hand-tinted albumen print, 1857 (NPG P3) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Keith Floyd took cooking outside the studio and out to the field in local restaurants, not only in the UK but in France and the rest of the world. Food is escapism and celebrity chefs bring us the food of places we might never have been to.

1 (Last accessed 5 March 2022).
2 Patten using oats for cooking: Marguerite Patten cooks Herrings in Oats.  Archive film 93734
3 You can see Jamie Oliver catching up with his school dinners initiative here: Jamie Oliver on schools meals crusade again
4 Here you can see Floyd cooking a stew on the field: Pork with Black beans - Santa Fe - Floyd's American Pie - BBC Food

Author: Charo Rovira, archive volunteer.

This blog was developed to accompany the exhibition FOOD: Recipe or Remedy, which runs from 28 April 2022 to 27 January 2023.

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