In his latest missive for The Atlantic, Alinea chef Grant Achatz notes that when you're visiting a celebrity chef-driven restaurant, whether or not the chef is there probably makes little difference from a purely culinary perspective. (In fact, Grub Street has experienced quite the opposite — some of our most disappointing dinners have been during times when a long-absent, publicity-friendly chef has decided to rejoin the line.) With some reluctance, Achatz acknowledges that it's probably not really the food that the diners care about: it's the celebrity encounter.
"Are we even talking about the food?" Achatz wonders. "Isn't this about the impact of presence? What if I sat in my office all night long, every meal cooked for every diner without my touching one component of one dish, and then walked through the rooms and chatted with guests at the end of their meal? Would they leave the restaurant having had a better experience than if I'd been too busy cooking to make a single appearance?"
Ask that to the "culinary groupies" that populate a column in today's RedEye. There's the Rick Bayless fan who's eaten at Frontera "dozens of times" before finally working up the nerve to ask to say hello to the chef; the guy who started an Achatz/Alinea Facebook group despite never having eaten at the restaurant; and — to hear Rick Tramonto tell it — the Tru fanatics who follow him to his kids' soccer game (wait, seriously?). We can't help but think they'd still swoon for it if their culinary god of choice plated pop-tarts and potting soil — when the locus of your fandom is the person, it pretty much stops being about the food.