I See Your Expertise and Raise You Mine: Social Media Foodscapes and The Rise of The Celebrity Chef
In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of a new type of a celebrity: the celebrity chef. Many popular chefs, from the UK’s Jamie Oliver to America’s Martha Stewart and Australia’s Donna Hay, have become household names in the developed world. In early television cooking shows, chefs demonstrated their cooking skills. Now, the celebrity chef is a performer, an entertainer and a lifestyle consultant (Barnes, 2014; Chiaro, 2008; De Solier, 2005; Lane & Fisher, 2015; Salkin, 2013). Where once these chefs may have gained a public profile from their cookbooks or television programs, now blogs and various social media channels provide opportunities for promoting their ideas beyond their culinary identities.
In effect, these chefs embody a wider range of food-based identities and are increasingly influential in defining what constitutes ‘good food’ in the contemporary foodscape, often telling consumers what they should be eating to define their identities, maintain their health and control their household budget (Johnston & Goodman, 2015). Given the influence food celebrities wield over consumers, concerns have been raised about the nature of their advice, with some describing it as ‘data-free celebrity science’ (Robbins, 2013; Rousseau, 2015). For Rousseau (2015), the problem is not simply that celebrities sometimes challenge existing scientific knowledge on what constitutes good, healthy food, but also that they tend to present an alternative with absolute certainty in a manner which completely disregards the very process of scientific inquiry.
Controversial Australian media personality Pete Evans, a former pizza chef turned paleo diet advocate, is a prime example of this new development. Evans originally gained popularity as a ‘traditional’ chef. Between 1998 and 2011 he opened numerous award-winning restaurants in Australia. He also hosted a range of television shows, including Fresh with the Australian Women’s Weekly (2007-2009), and appeared on MasterChefAustralia. Since 2010, Evans has been the judge on the popular reality show My Kitchen Rules, which won a Logie Award in 2014 for the ‘Most Popular Reality Program’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2014), and in 2015 was the highest rated reality television competition in Australia with approximately two million weekly viewers, thus cementing himself as a household name in Australia. In the US, Evans also hosted the show A Moveable Feast, which gained a ‘Daytime Emmy Award’ nomination in 2014 (Styles, 2014).
More recently, Evans has put considerable focus on his personal endeavours as an expert on the paleo diet, which requires people to cut out grains, legumes and most dairy products (Healthline, 2018). Since his transformation from a traditional chef to an activist, Evans has sensationalised the benefits of the diet as both the key to good health and a treatment for numerous health disorders and illnesses, including autism, asthma, diabetes and even cancer (Willis, 2018). He actively utilises his heavily moderated Facebook page to both market his enterprise and criticise those who disagree with his views.
In 2015, Evans attracted global mainstream media attention with his controversial co-authored cookbook, Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way for New Mums, Babies and Toddlers. Several health experts raised alarms about the potential of some recipes to severely harm infants’ health and the book was subsequently dropped by its publisher (The Australian, 2015; Davey, 2015; Taylor, 2015). Evans vehemently rejected all the experts’ assessments and went on to self-publish the book.
Developments such as these raise crucial questions regarding contemporary food cultures and the dissemination of food-related information. How do famous celebrity chefs themselves use social media sites to construct their credibility and gain social and political influence? Does expertise on social media translate into mainstream media coverage? Given the fundamental importance of media in both shaping and reflecting the food cultures that constitute foodscapes, critical evaluation of both conventional and new media must be a core feature of such an analysis (Johnston & Goodman, 2015).
We respond to these questions through a close investigation of the mainstream print media coverage available online, focusing on the most popular media outlets in Australia as identified by Nielsen (2017), and the individual Facebook site of Pete Evans in the 12-month period surrounding the digital and hard copy releases (published on May 2015 and November 2015 respectively) of Bubba Yum Yum. By doing so, we explore the role of celebrity influencers in the construction of digital foodscapes more broadly.