Rick Bayless, a chef who owns both Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in Chicago, and has authored well-respected Mexican cookbooks, is under fire by some professional chefs who think he has sold out by endorsing Burger King's new "Santa Fe Fire-Grilled Chicken Baguette Sandwich."
Food Network personality Rachael Ray, the perky host of "30-Minute Meals," also was featured in commercials touting the new sandwiches, but it was Bayless' appearance that sparked a reaction like a lit match tossed into gasoline.
New York chef Anthony Bourdain, the acerbic author of "Kitchen Confidential" and "A Cook's Tour," tore into Bayless on egullet, calling him a "pimp for the Evil Empire."
"In one stroke, he's negated everything he's ever said, everything he ever claimed to stand for," wrote Bourdain.
In a later e-mail to the Food section, Bourdain explained that he doesn't object per se to a chef endorsing a product.
"The idea that a chef has sold out if he decides to sell Rockports or a line of kitchen appliances seems unreasonable. We don't hold actors or even politicians to such standards," Bourdain wrote. But, "endorsing a product that encapsulates everything you've spoken against invites criticism and ridicule. Chef 'BK' Bayless has made his own sodden bed."
New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who has advised chefs on endorsement deals, is more tempered in his reaction.
On one hand, he says, "it's good to focus on more healthful food, and the sandwich is better than most of the stuff at Burger King." But Bayless has created a credibility gap, Clark adds. "Emeril can endorse Crest toothpaste because Emeril never claims to know a lot about food. But Rick has been respected for many years as a food historian, a culinary anthropologist and a passionate purist. If he's going to shock us, it better be for a good reason and done well. And these commercials are cheesy. He's just being a shill."
Not everyone has bashed Bayless over the ads. Washington pastry chef Steve Klc posted a lengthy defense of Bayless on egullet, arguing that the Chicago chef is doing what he's always done -- working to effect a positive change in Americans' eating habits.
Bayless speaks out on his own site about his decision to be in the ads.