In the food kingdom, it’s pretty rare for a chef to use the veil of anonymity to rabble rouse (that’s usually left to Yelpers), which was why the emergence of Instagram celebrity Chef Jacques La Merde (@chefjacqueslamerde) last year was so refreshing. And hilarious. La Merde’s pitch-perfect takedowns of haute cuisine using junk-food ingredients tapped a vein—to the tune of 90,000+ followers—and seemed to provide a little respite for people inside and outside the industry who have sea-buckthorn fatigue.
Now, La Merde’s true identity has been revealed on Bravo’s Top Chef (Season 13: Episode 8) and at a zany collaboration dinner at Boston’s Puritan & Company. Drum roll please! The woman—let that sink in for a moment, given the all-caps, bro-tastic vernacular she used so flawlessly—behind the mask is none other than Christine Flynn, a Canadian-born, classically trained chef who has worked at acclaimed restaurants in France and New England. She now lives in Toronto and oversees innovation and culinary concepts for iQ Food Co, a company that develops restaurants around sustainability and nutrition.
With the mask gone, Flynn is speaking out about her motivations with a level of nuance that is as on-point as her comedy. At the same time, more than a few people from across the food world are sounding off too, with a mix of reverence and wistfulness about the end of a grand inside joke.
“There are no beasts too sacred to poke a fork at, and I think perhaps that’s gotten a little lost,” said Kat Kinsman, Editor at Large for Tasting Table. “La Merde’s work is a fantastic (if hyperbolic) snapshot of a certain facet of food culture right now, and I think in 10, 20, 25 years we’ll all be looking back and thinking ‘Why the heck were we eating compost off of weird rocks? Didn’t we have plates?’”
Chefs and other people who have toiled in restaurant kitchens were particularly struck by the La Merde phenomenon, both because it dropped at exactly the right moment of turmoil and introspection, and because Flynn clearly has the chops to connect craft to satire.
“There are no beasts too sacred to poke a fork at, and I think perhaps that’s gotten a little lost,” said Kat Kinsman, Editor at Large for Tasting Table. “La Merde’s work is a fantastic (if hyperbolic) snapshot of a certain facet of food culture right now.”
“It’s been oddly inspirational,” said Wil Gilson, the chef-owner of Puritan & Company and a friend of Flynn’s for years. “If you look at the text below the photos, the messages are supportive of young cooks who want to be a part of the #cheflife, and we all need parody to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed in an industry that can be pretty brutal.”
Others were a bit less starry eyed, but still supportive of the overall theme.
“Perspective about what we do is really key,” said Michael Scelfo, the chef-owner of Boston’s acclaimed Alden & Harlow and a participant in the collaboration dinner with Flynn. “Good cooking is a real skill that can impact people for sure, but we aren’t saving lives, so it’s a good thing to get over ourselves at a certain point.”
Will Flynn’s work lead to change in the restaurant industry? Probably not, but that didn’t stop people from piping up about trends they wish her satire had killed.
“I think we can all certainly put away the bacon for a bit,” said Padma Lakshmi, the host and judge of Top Chef. “And on the other side of the spectrum, also do away with cleanses.”
Putting the statuesque snark aside, there are some meta-themes to consider amidst the La Merde crush. “Because of Instagram and the increasing importance of food images in publications, I wonder if people are feeling as if they can evaluate a dish or restaurant without ever having tasted the food,” said Kinsman. “I think we need to remember that the visual is just one component of food—and give the ugly stuff a chance!”
Flynn herself may be the most thoughtful about it all. While she has powerfully called out things that have gone awry in the restaurant industry, she also represents some of the things that are great about it, like loyalty, hard work, and deference. It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that, even in our over-heated culinary world, every chef isn’t trying to get big enough to sell out. Here, Flynn talks at length about what it was like to be a celebrity parody chef.
What is this all about? What’s the message you’re really trying to send?
I’m aware of the challenges in the industry. I face them every day and constantly grapple with where my values are. Recently, I had to agonize over milk. Do I want to offer factory-farmed milk? No, too many waste lagoons. Or do I want to help suck California dry and serve almond milk? What about soy? Oh wait, that’s a hormone disruptor. Okay we’ll go local, organic. Uh-oh, just looked at the price. Maybe we can get non-irradiated coconut milk from Thailand? Carbon footprint kind of high though. GEEZ IT’S ACTUALLY ENOUGH TO MAKE ANYONE WRITE IN ALL CAPS ISN’T IT?
Jacques was about taking a break from reality, and creating something inclusive and lighthearted that made me happy. Sounds selfish, and it probably is, since I have laughed harder than anyone over the past year. I still have to deal with deadlines, crappy services and staff no-shows, but Jacques was an exercise in pure, unadulterated joy where I could take whatever I was struggling with and just make fun of it—and myself.
You’ve chosen to go public in part by appearing on Top Chef, which sometimes has a way of glossing over how hard becoming a chef really is. It can be looked at as fuel for a trend among young chefs who, rather than pay years of dues on the line, aim first and foremost for TV stardom. What’s your point of view?
In terms of how I feel about the show itself, I’m a huge fan. I like cooking. I like being entertained. I disagree that the show glosses over how hard it is. Maybe the camera doesn’t pan to long clips of people crying in the walk-in, but contestants often speak candidly about the issues they face. Is it the best resource for a young chef trying to get a sense of the industry? Probably not, but I also don’t recall the show ever claiming to be anything more than good television.
What are you planning to do with your newfound notoriety?
I’m just going to keep working. I don’t really know how to do anything else.
What’s your ideal restaurant concept, if you could open anything you want?
I have zero interest in opening my own restaurant. Maybe it’s ADD, maybe its wanderlust, maybe its commitment-phobia, but the idea of being stuck with one concept and one spot makes me cringe. I’d rather move around and see different ideas while I help people figure out how to achieve their goals. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you’re good at, and I’m good at lurking behind the scenes and making the guts of an operation run smooth.
What’s your favorite kitchen outfit and soundtrack? Jordache is too flammable and your dog ate your Big Daddy Kane box set.
Big fan of anything that is actually a one-piece. I like only having to deal with one zipper. Even better if there is a non-flattering belt component. Or if I could ski in it. Favorite album? Huey Lewis and the News Greatest Hits is a no brainer.
You talk a lot about the BROS, but what about the ladies?
Do I have a Taylor Swift style squad? No, I’ve been cooking for 17 years and 97% of my friends are men and they are awesome, but I’m getting to know more women, and this year in particular I’ve realized just how many ladies are at the top of our food chain.
What food trend, restaurant, chef and/or meal brought you to your breaking point?
I can roll with most trends. There’s always someone out there who’s going to execute something well you thought was dated and change your mind. I had a brilliant, life-changing tasting menu last month at LeMousso in Montreal. Typically, I’m not a huge fan of that style of dining. Clearly I was wrong and I need to stop making general statements.
You can stage at any restaurant, food company test kitchen, or fast food chain in the world. Where?
Fogo Island. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only been to Newfoundland once and it was during a layover. There so much cultural and historical significance to that place, it would be an honor to cook there. Heck, it would be an honor just to pick lichen there. Hopefully they read this.
When are we going to find out that this has all been an elaborate ploy to sell Bobby Flay’s new Kitchen Erotique clothing line for Wal-Mart?
You know I make commission on that line right?