The Wall Street Journal is not an outlet you think of much for food news, but staff reporter Kelly Crow had a heck of a story on the 22nd about top chefs being paid to shill for food producers without necessarily revealing their compensation to the dining and viewing public.
Frontera's Rick Bayless was widely lambasted for doing a Burger King ad. How could such a well respected chef stoop so low? Personally, I think it had to do with tweaking the big Rock and Roll McDonald's just down the street from him, but that's just my opinion.
I didn't personally think his endorsement was a problem since it was clear he was just following the road taken by Paul Prudhomme et al, and no one really thought Rick Bayless was leaving his top shelf gourmet Mexican restaurant to go get himself a double Whopper with cheese. Bayless stated his goal was to "help Burger King customers “take steps toward honest, seasonal, natural flavors [by] starting with them where they are". Oh, and get paid. That, too.
He got paid, but the WSJ reports that Bayless was so pressured by the foodie community and media to renounce the Burger King spot that he gave the $300,000 he earned for the commercial to charity.
Many of the deals the WSJ reports are based on exposure not on TV or in commercials, but in the chefs' restaurants. Jose Andres, whose guacamole I enjoyed at Cafe Atlantico got paid to increase the number of avocado dishes on his menus from two to eight. Ming Tsai uses frozen shrimp instead of fresh shrimp in part because he gets paid to do so. Even Rick Tramanto and Charlie Trotter have promotional deals (though neither one, surprisingly, is employed by the Foie Gras Board).
Ironically, the most honestly ungrateful of the bunch is Bayless who has a deal with V&V Supremo for his PBS coooking show "Mexico: One Plate at a Time", but who refuses to use their cheeses in his restaurant. Perhaps tellingly, the Journal notes "Supremo executives did not return repeated interview requests."
Is it a problem that chefs are being bought (or at least rented)? I think it can be. As this practice becomes more widely known a chef who honestly believes that a specific branded ingredient is far and above the best of its kind and places the name of the ingredient on the menu is going to be suspect. Conversely, a chef who takes the money may be less willing to experiment with other ingredients until he/she gets paid. That may lead to less interesting and lower quality food and a diminishment of the quest for culinary excellence without regard for who's footing the bill.