"It was hard to believe that Marco Pierre White was at my cooking school, making us risotto for lunch," gushes Bonnie Stern in Canada's National Post. The Post, currently the ninth-most read newspaper in Canada and the second largest in terms of distribution, is a conservative publication, and I expect it to be opinionated. But in the food section last month, opinion gave way to embarrassing adulation, cleverly orchestrated as part of an international campaign by one of the world's largest food companies.
The strategy: Send a celebrity to hypnotize the second-tier food press into reproducing their relentless product pitch in print. The resulting newspaper "articles" read like ad copy. In this case, the article appeared, with lavish photos, as the front full-page lead of the food section in the printed paper, but, aptly, was later moved to the opinion section on the newspaper's web site, photos omitted.
Marco Pierre White has been a one-man attention machine for most of his 22 years as a chef, and every year thereafter. He is the second-youngest Michelin three-star chef ever, mentor to Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali, who famously, and quite publicly, gave back his stars and retired from cooking in 1999 (at age 36) to pursue other interests. Among them, television shows, lucrative consulting contracts, pitching Knorr bouillon products for Unilever Corporation, and, this year, making risotto for Bonnie Stern—and countless other food writers—during his current world tour.
And White is effective. The National Post article is unquestioning (and on-message):
Knorr stocks are found in professional kitchens more often than you'd think, he said, and chefs often use it to intensify the flavour of their homemade stocks ... his mother always used Knorr bouillon and that Knorr's new product is a lifesaver ... use bouillon instead of salt in recipes, such as when cooking pasta. You can also use it as an instant marinade (see steak below).
It's a floor cleaner and a dessert topping. The fact that the Knorr boullion is composed almost entirely of salt, MSG, and hydrogenated oils is not mentioned (a single cube exceeds the U.S. recommended daily allowance for sodium). The newspaper then prints three unedited Knorr-Unilever recipes, in full, with the Knorr brand names in the ingredient list.
Unfortunately, what should be an isolated (and tragicomic) victory by Unilever PR is a spreading success. Unilever is doing what food companies often do: getting cooks to switch from homemade to processed, adding industrial ingredients where none are needed. Bouillon cubes in pasta water?
On the same tour, White drove a writer from the Toronto Sun (circulation 1 million) into an overheated pant:
We're in the kitchen with Marco Pierre White, famed British chef with a bounty of restaurants, TV shows, books and food businesses under that rakish chef's hat of his. And he's cooking with Knorr, specifically the company's new Homestyle Stock, packaged in tiny pot-shaped containers that jiggle with concentrated flavour.
The newspaper columnist here continues to push the Knorr concentrate (which is mostly water, salt, and palm oil), praising its chef-ambassador as a "melodic rock star" with "that rugged handsome quality" and "wide smile." After repeating the assertion that White has always used Knorr products to make the stock at his three-Michelin-star restaurant, she has a few personal comments. "His eyes never leave your face. You hold your breath waiting for him to blink ... but he doesn't."
If White ever did use any instant bouillon products before signing the promotional contract with Unilever in 2007 (he reportedly received US$1.9 million from the company), he never mentioned it before 2007.
White's tour as Knorr's "brand ambassador" began in England, where smaller papers also swooned (and pitched on his behalf), and major newspapers took a pass. The disgusted Telegraph blasted him on its blog, ordering him to "get back in the kitchen." Newspapers in the U.S. have not yet had the honor of a visit from the brand ambassador. When it comes, I hope they will be more diligent and critical.
It is the manifestly unhealthy and inferior nature of the Knorr stocks juxtaposed with White's disproportionately total endorsement that disappoints me.
It is the manifestly unhealthy and inferior nature of the Knorr stocks (cubed, dehydrated, concentrated) juxtaposed with White's disproportionately total endorsement that disappoints me. Early interviewers who questioned his sincerity were met with unanswerable bluster: "It's the best fucking ingredient in the world, let's not kid ourselves. Knorr chicken-stock cubes? Genius product."
In March, White signed a contract with the Bernard Matthews food company to promote its products as well, including the Turkey Twizzler, a spiral-shaped formed meat product cited by Jamie Oliver as symbolizing everything that is wrong with children's processed food.
Other celebrity chefs have certainly made questionable promotions. Tom Colicchio tells us Diet Coke is "sophisticated," and Alton Brown is perhaps more concerned with the beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols in Welch's grape juice than how the grapes are harvested. But Marco Pierre White's promotions, and press tours, seem to be on an entirely different level of shamelessness.
I recently asked another, current three-star Michelin chef about White's Knorr endorsement antics. "Regardless of the Michelin stars, be it three, or two, or one, or none, any chef has to have an ethical code," he explained. "This only tells you about the ethical code of this person. No matter how many Michelin stars you have, all chefs have a social responsibility, and you have to be careful with that."
Now, more than ever, so does the food press.
Correction: This piece originally misidentified the ownership of the National Post. The newspaper is owned by Postmedia Network Inc.