The presence of chefs on television has a long history, longer than we have the attention span for these days, but the earliest notable chef in history was Julia Child. Her television show, The French Chef (debuted in 1963), invited viewers into a world where gourmet skill was not an exclusive affair, bridging the gap between haute cuisine and the everyday home cook — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished before.
As the aromatic flavours wafted through living rooms, Child not only stirred pots but also stirred a revolution. Her on-screen success set the stage for future celebrity chefs, demonstrating the potential for culinary expertise to extend beyond the pass and into the realm of popular culture.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the celebrity chef phenomenon exploded. The rise of cable television and specialised networks dedicated to food and cooking, such as the Food Network (est 1993), provided a platform for chefs to showcase their talents to a broader audience. Emeril Lagasse, with his catchphrase “Bam!” and dynamic cooking demonstrations, became a household name, as did everyone’s favourite, hot head chef, Gordon Ramsay, contributing to the public idea of chefs as entertainers.
Around the same time, chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay began building culinary empires beyond the kitchen. Puck opened multiple restaurants, authored cookbooks, and even became associated with catering high-profile events, where he, himself, was regarded as a celebrity while donning his chef whites.
The trend continued to evolve with the advent of reality cooking competitions, where chefs competed against each other in culinary challenges. Shows like Iron Chef, (originated in Japan in the 1990s and was adapted in various countries) and Top Chef (premiered in the U.S. in 2006) added a competitive and entertaining element to the culinary television landscape.
At this point, the surge of reality TV, with personalities like the Kardashians and other obscenely rich people shopping, lounging around in mansions, and shopping, was gaining momentum on silver screens.
It was only a matter of time before the unvarnished truths of the culinary world would join the reality TV empire for no other reason than to provide good viewing — and maybe some education, which is the unexpected result of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Viewers were drawn to the intense interactions between Ramsay and restaurant owners, the behind-the-scenes look at the food industry, and the suspense of whether the struggling establishments could be rescued. It marked a significant moment in pop culture. Dramatic moments and memorable quotes became popular fodder for internet memes and parodies we see referenced in online culture to this day.
The MasterChef Australia Phenomenon and Fall of Big Brother
Big Brother Australia premiered on April 23, 2001. The format, where a group of people lived together in a house under constant surveillance, was novel at the time, but the drama reeled in viewers. The show was seen as a social experiment, leading to discussions about human behaviour and relationships.
Despite its cultural phenomenon status stemming from its distinctive blend of voyeurism, drama, and human dynamics, it had a reputation as “nasty TV.” Over time, audiences collectively shifted their preferences, realising a desire for more wholesome and uplifting content.
Enter the MasterChef phenomenon, which sparked in 2009 when MasterChef Australia first graced the screens. What set it apart was the incredibly positive and supportive atmosphere, explained We Are Gather co-founder Hannah Pike at a SXSW Sydney 2023 talk. Judges took a constructive approach, prioritising skill development over harsh criticism.
With high production values, professional kitchen setups, and the inclusion of renowned chefs as judges and mentors, the show achieved a heightened level of visual and culinary appeal that was felt around the world.
As Pike pointed out, “MasterChef Denmark was modelled after the Australian version.” This culinary wave spawned a cascade of cooking shows, including My Kitchen Rules, and culinary adventures with a travel twist, such as Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam.
As we continue to savour the delights served by MasterChef Australia and other food programs, it’s evident that their impact on our culture is not just a fleeting trend but a lasting legacy that has altered our relationship with the art of cooking. But how does that fare in the digital age?
Cooking Goes Social
Andy Hearnden, better known as Andy Cooks on TikTok, is perhaps the most-watched chef online. With billions of views for his trademark opening line, “Hey babe,” coupled with the sound of a fridge door opening, Andy signals to viewers that a delicious and straightforward recipe is about to unfold in a 30-second video bite. Andy is one of a new generation of professional chefs offering a backstage pass, if you will, to the culinary club, breaking down the mystique that often surrounds fine dining.
Andy spent most of his life working in kitchens around the world, from cafes in his home city, Auckland, from when he was 16 to a pivotal chapter in London, working under renowned chefs like Tom Aikens and later at The Roof Gardens, formerly owned by Richard Branson.
His culinary adventure continued as he moved to Australia, working in Sydney at Felix, part of the Merivale group, and later at Gills Diner, Melbourne. Then, the corporate world beckoned, leading Andy to a role as a corporate executive chef for Emirates Leisure Retail, managing a vast network of venues across Australia and New Zealand.
However, the unforeseen arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly altered his trajectory, as it did for most. “I kind of lost my job pretty early in the COVID… I had always been a big consumer of content, but like most people, I was always scared to kind of jump in and do it.” It was the explosive growth observed by content creators on TikTok during the pandemic that served as a catalyst for Andy. With time on his hands and a desire to share his passion, he ventured into the world of short-form videos.
The transition from a seasoned chef to a content creator on TikTok wasn’t without its challenges. Andy had no formal training in media or television, and the process of adapting to the camera was a learning curve he explained. Andy highlighted the stages of this transformation, from simply being in front of the camera to mastering the art of talking to the lens. The journey, though tough, allowed him to connect with a global audience and transcend the boundaries of a traditional kitchen.
“The goal was always to inspire home cooks, to encourage them to tackle dishes they might have thought were too challenging,” he said. “I genuinely believe that people think cooking is harder than it actually is, and TikTok provides a perfect platform to demystify the process.”
In the early days of his culinary career, the concept of a celebrity chef was nonexistent. However, as he explained, the demands and stresses of kitchen life became clear. “At some point, people realise they can’t stay on this path forever. The celebrity chef became an out.”
Andy who has 3.4 million Instagram followers, 5.3 million TikTok followers, and over 100 million likes, has mastered the art of crafting short-form videos that not only entertain but also educate. Consider it a cooking show tailored for the brief attention span of the new generation—30-second snippets that combine expertise with relatability.
Yet, in a world where celebrity chefs dominate our screens, it raises the question of whether the public still values chefs as individuals or primarily as entertainers. Andy’s fame highlights the dual role chefs now play — as culinary artisans and charismatic personalities. The challenge lies in striking a balance between staying true to their culinary roots and meeting the demands of a digital audience.
Andy prioritises active engagement with followers, responding to comments, addressing questions, and even welcoming suggestions for future content. This interactive approach has grown a community, transforming his digital platforms into hubs where home cooks connect, learn, and share their kitchen adventures — a direct connection that traditional TV struggles to achieve.
As chefs step into the spotlight as celebrities and content creators, their role stretches beyond the kitchen pass. Just as Julia Child did it for TV, chefs like Andy Cooks, along with many other chefs and home cooks on TikTok and Instagram, are shaking off the idea that culinary expertise belongs only to the professionals — it belongs to everyone.