Speaking at Food on the Edge in Galway last month Welgemoed, who runs the acclaimed Africola restaurant in Adelaide, Australia, said chefs needed to think twice before endorsing products which had a negative impact on their local food systems.
“Whether you like it or not celebrity chef culture has a profound impact on our world and frames how we think about important issues,” he said.
“On one hand we talk about supporting local farmers and the environment, zero waste sustainability, and on the other hand we are giving the camera a cheeky wink to support these supermarket brands, turning a blind eye to how these products are being produced and what the impact is on the food system.”
The South African chef referenced Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie’s Garden’ advertising campaign for Woolworths Australia in 2014, which faced criticism after it emerged vegetable suppliers were being charged a 40¢-a-crate levy by the retailer to fund the campaign.
At the time Oliver said he sympathised with the farmers, but that as an employee of Woolworths he held no sway over their commercial decisions.
Dangers of a more 'narcissistic' industry
Welgemoed added that the omnipresence of televised cooking shows had created the ‘illusion’ that money and fame was available to all, an appealing notion to young chefs on minimum wage.
“Shows like MasterChef or recently The Final Table leverage fascination. The possibility of becoming a celebrity is the unspoken reward of going on the show.
“With the lure of money and exposure we forget ourselves and are often bought. This is very, very dangerous.
“For an innocuous kickback paid for by corporate greed, we’re given the power to negatively impact our food system and communities.”
Welgemoed also said the rise of the celebrity chef had contributed to a more ‘narcissistic industry’.
He described starting as a commis chef and being told cooking was only a third of the job, while the rest was cleaning.
He said: “To me that makes sense. Nowadays cooking is only a fifth of a job, the rest is PR management and social media algorithms.”
The chef called on others in the restaurant industry to be mindful when taking a paycheck.
“It’s up to us to question our peers and benefactors when we see improper behaviour, conflicts of interest and actions that may be detrimental to our industry or just gross misuse of a public platform for personal gain.
“Whether you realise it or not we actually have a powerful voice, so when people ask you to appear on that show, endorse that product, before you say yes think about what you stand for, but also what they stand for as well.”
Food on the Edge is a two-day food and restaurant symposium held in Galway