Opinion: Who Gets to Be “Chef”?

The Alison Roman debacle shows us that the immigrant cook gets little to no recognition or economic payoff. The celebrity chef builds a lifestyle.

Meghna Rao

May 13, 2020

Opinion: Who Gets to Be “Chef”?
Illustration by Abhilash Baddha for The Juggernaut

Growing up, I was surrounded by chefs whose cooking aspirations were always tempered with economic practicality, the immigrant way. One uncle is the sole connection for the entire Northeast for spicy peanut mixtures, almond barfis, and French-inspired chandrahara. Word of his barfis has reached Vermont. But this is a weekend and weeknight passion. His real job is running a tape-to-DVD conversion business out of a cramped office in midtown Manhattan. 

Another aunt single-handedly runs the Eastern Queens chapati circuit, flipping hundreds a day, the softness of her dough unparalleled. But that is her part-time job. To make ends meet, my aunt works in admin at an insurance company. A third uncle files papers for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) all week, and flies out to make giant pots of pulpy tomato sambar for weddings and religious events on the weekends. 

None have had the trajectory of the celebrity chef enjoyed by those like Alison Roman (The New York Times columnist behind the pandemic’s latest Twitter squabble) and a handful of others. They follow tried paths: work in reputable restaurants, find their unique cooking styles, get jobs at magazines, start or work at even more reputable restaurants, publish cookbooks, sell cookware, and eventually become celebrities. I want to say that the cooks who I know have never even dreamed that this was possible, that they would have laughed at me if I brought up the suggestion.