Celebrity chefs who are actually terrible cooks

Reasonably reliable historical accounts record the existence of a man named Mithaecus who lived in the Greek colony of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, in the late 5th century BCE. Mithaecus was a chef who, among other culinary achievements, created a recipe for preparing "serpent fish" (eels, e.g.) with cheese and olive oil. Chef Mithaecus also wrote what must be the earliest known cookbook, a work titled Opsartytikón which literally meant "cooking."

The ancient chef was well enough known to the Greeks to be mentioned by the likes of Socrates, Plato, and others. Was he then the first celebrity chef? It's certainly arguable that he was, but we'll leave that ancient debate nearly 2,500 years ago where it belongs and move up to the present day where celebrity chefs abound. It seems every day another former Iron Chef gets a TV show, a baking contest winner releases a cookbook, or a former swimsuit model suddenly appears on a Netflix show about global cuisine. And while most of today's celebrity chefs were genuine chefs before becoming famous, there are a handful of famous "chefs" who aren't true chefs at all.

This isn't to say that there aren't plenty of skilled cooks preparing amazing dishes in home kitchens, but without culinary training, one is not a chef. Even with training at a culinary school, though, someone can still be a bad chef. In fact, there are plenty of celebrity chefs who have little business being in the kitchen.

Celebrity chef Scott Conant had four restaurants close in less than two years

Scott Conant is a real chef with all the pedigree you'd think would lead to real success in the restaurant industry, and for a brief period in the early 2000s, his modern take on Italian cuisine had his star rising in the culinary world, particularly in New York City where in 2002 he opened  L'Impero, a restaurant built into the Tudor City apartment complex that would receive critical praise, and in 2008 Scarpetta, was called one of the best new restaurants in New York City at the time.

Soon Conant was appearing on TV shows like Chopped and Top Chef – in both cooking and judging roles. But beyond his signature Italian pasta dishes, it seems Conant really doesn't have many chops after all. In the last decade, the chef has had nearly half a dozen restaurants open and then fail after runs of less than two years. And in fact, that's being generous by using two years as an umbrella measurement.

Conant's restaurant Ponte closed in 20 months, Fusco failed in 16 months, Masso folded in 15 months, Imperro Cafe was shuttered after 14 months, and his restaurant Faustina did not even make it a single year before it closed down in late 2010. So while he can certainly cook, he can't seem to be the chef a successful restaurant needs these days.

Celebrity chef Sandra Lee has no formal culinary education

Sandra Lee has no formal culinary education, having been taught to cook by her grandmother in a cooking style as much about frugality as about flavor. Her rise out of a troubled childhood split between divorced parents (a distant, abusive mother and a father who served jail time, no less) into success and stardom is impressive. Yet, her positioning as a legitimate chef is not. To Lee's credit, however, she never even wanted to do the cooking show that has brought her the most recognition. Regarding the launch of her 2003 Food Network show Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, Lee is quoted saying:

"When I came to the Food Network, I didn't want to do a cooking show... I told [producer] Kathleen Finch for nine months I didn't want to do a cooking show, I wanted to do a home-and-garden show. She said, 'No, we really need you to do this. You can do tablescapes also, as long as you cook.' I said, 'Okay, fine.'"

Lee does not create original recipes of note and often uses prepared ingredients rather than working from scratch. Granted, that is her whole schtick, using store-bought and ready-made ingredients when possible to cut costs and timing, but it is not true cooking worthy of the title "chef," an appellation often applied to her.

Celebrity chef Rachael Ray has no formal training as a chef and evens disavows the title for herself

Rachael Ray is a great entertainer, a skilled businesswoman, and an occasional cultural lightning rod (celebrity disses on everyone from Martha Stewart to Anthony Bourdain), but by her own admission, this famed celebrity chef is no chef at all. Ray has zero professional culinary training and never worked in a professional kitchen or studied under a professional chef. 

Her journey to being a TV cook was rather a surprise. Ray's mother managed several restaurants, something Ray herself would do briefly as well. She also worked in several other food-adjacent capacities, such as at a candy counter in a Macy's. But it was her experience teaching customers of the gourmet food shop Cowan & Lobel how to use primarily pre-packaged foods to create meals in less than 30 minutes that would set the course of her life. Soon she was doing weekly "30 Minute Meals" classes on a local news station. This led to appearances on the Today show which led to her eventual stardom in her own right as a "chef" specializing in "quick and easy" cooking. And selling lots of branded kitchenware.

Not only does Ray not claim to be a great cook, but she even said: "My husband cooks fancier food for himself than I've ever cooked on-air ... Not only am I not a chef, I'm not a better cook than my own husband!" 

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has come up with almost no original dishes

To be clear, Jamie Oliver is a good man who does good things and makes good food, but a good chef, he is not. Good cook, maybe, but don't hold your breath waiting for him to open a Michelin star restaurant. Oliver studied art, geology, and home economics as a young man, coming to cooking merely because he took a job as a pastry chef and ended up working under noted Italian chef Antonio Carluccio at London restaurant Neal Street. Oliver was soon recognized more for his personality than his cooking, happening to appear in a documentary about another restaurant where he worked a few years later.

This led to his show The Naked Chef (the food was "naked," not the man) when Oliver was a mere 22-years-old. In the years since, he has opened restaurants, starred on other programs, spearheaded myriad charitable efforts, and encouraged people to eat local. Those are good things, but he has never created a dish of real note, nor has his cooking been noted by any major awards or celebrated by prominent critics. Rather Oliver tends to focus on homemade style cooking and usually reproduces safe, classic meals. Which is fine, there is a place and a need for that, and helping everyday people make everyday food is commendable work. But it does not make him a good chef.

Paula Deen's cooking is wildly unhealthy

While her cooking is something many people want nowhere near their plates, Paula Deen has proved herself most adept at putting her foot into her own mouth. In more incidents than we have time to recount, Deen has made racist, lewd, and tone-deaf comments that have repeatedly landed her in hot water and even had a cooking show canceled and her career derailed less than a decade ago. From allegations of use of the worst racial epithets to sexually inappropriate comments and joking, Deen has landed herself in the spotlight of public scrutiny numerous times. 

If she were merely a crass and potentially bigoted human being, she could still be a great chef ... but that's not the case here. Rather she's a living, breathing, cooking public health emergency. Deen's signature style of Southern cooking is wildly unhealthy, or what the late Anthony Bourdain called "f—ing bad for you!" Dubiously to her credit, and unlike other celebrity chefs noted for spitting out their own food after cameras stop rolling (looking at Giada De Laurentiis in particular), Deen does apparently eat the way she cooks on TV. That sort of poor cooking though is no doubt a primary culprit for her Type-II diabetes — something she knew about for years but only revealed in 2012. She revealed that only after signing a major endorsement deal with a drugmaker, by the way — further evidence of the strength of her character — or lack thereof.

Snoop Dogg's cookbook and chef persona are fun, but his actual cooking is nothing special

Snoop Dogg is a genuine American original and an American treasure whose long career in music has changed the cultural landscape. He will be remembered for generations as a foundational pillar of hip-hop and a cultural icon worthy of his acclaim. But he's not a good chef, amusing appearances with Martha Stewart and "authorship" of a cookbook aside. Many of the recipes in Snoop's cookbook From Crook to Cook: Platinum Recipes from Tha Boss Dogg's Kitchen are neither platinum in quality nor are they from Mr. Dogg's kitchen. By in large, the book gussies up long-established dishes with amusing (and often aggressive) names, but there is really nothing new or notable to be found in the pages. And that was verified by a chef who critiqued these recipes — which can't be 100 percent attributed to Snoop — for Vice.

Granted, the book can be a fun read, given recipes like "Biscuits with Tha Thickness Gravy," "Not Ya Mamma's Corn Muffins," and "Mile-High Omelet," anyone looking for genuine kitchen inspiration or to learn something about cooking will have to look elsewhere. (And for the record, there are no recipes that use marijuana as an ingredient, so don't be let down if that's your thing. On the other hand, if you like a hearty breakfast, go for it.)

Nigella Lawson is no celebrity chef, but to her credit she rejects the title when assigned to her

If you type "Nigella Lawson" into a search engine, the first hit you will probably get links to her own website, Nigella.com. The second will be her Wikipedia page where she is described as "an English food writer and television chef." Lawson is English, she is a food writer, and she is often on television, but she is no chef, not by any fair measure. And she is among a number of celebrity chefs who know it, too. She is even on record saying: "I'm not a chef. I'm not even a trained cook." Much like Jamie Oliver, rather than trying to be an inventive and progressive chef, she instead focuses on "real cooking," which she describes as "the sort that goes on in homes, does not have to be tricksy or difficult."

So is Lawson's cooking any good? Well, her book How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food was a huge success, as have been her subsequent books. Yet, fans have taken issue with her cook, too. Putting a fried egg on a salad led to a major backlash and led to Intelligencer writing the headline  "Nigella Lawson Made the Worst Salad in the World..." While Lawson may not be an original or notable chef, per se, her literary success has revealed her to be a remarkably good writer.

Guy Fieri may be a legit cook but his kitchen hygiene issues would have him kicked out most restaurants

It's so easy to take swipes at Guy Fieri that it's almost uncouth to do so. From his wacky appearance and the violent fight he had with his hairdresser to a restaurant that was met with ridicule and mockery by multiple New York food critics, the guy has not made it difficult to fire shots across his bow. On the other hand, Mr. Fieri has also done lots of good in the world, notably his recent work feeding literally thousands of firefighters and other first responders battling wildfires out on the West Coast. And to top it off, Fieri is 100 percent a real, legit chef. He developed a keen interest in food in his teens (in France, no less) and has spent his entire career working with food. And the man can cook well. And he can judge food well. He has done both on scores of episodes of numerous TV shows, including Guy's Big Bite, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and Guy's Grocery Games.

So why is a person with a credible claim to being a decent chef on the list? Because respectable chefs practice the best hygiene in the kitchen, whereas celebrity chef Fieri's is often wretched. Aside from constantly handling food on camera, an NYC health department report revealed one of his restaurants infested with flies in food prep areas.

Gina Neely never wanted to be a celebrity chef and hated the fame her show brought

Gina Neely and her then-husband Patrick Neely had several highly successful barbecue restaurants in their home state of Tennessee, and she was satisfied to be a businesswoman helping manage those establishments. Where Gina was not satisfied was in her marriage to Patrick, a marriage she was ready to end when there came a deal for a TV show that would be the highly successful Food Network program Down Home with the Neelys. Gina found herself all but forced to stay in her marriage for multiple more years, and to portray herself not only as a chef, but also as a happy wife, in front of millions of viewers each season. She is even quoted saying: "I never wanted to be a TV chef."

The charade came to an eventual end when Neely finally filed for divorce in 2014, after 20 years together and dozens of episodes of Down Home with the Neelys, citing irreconcilable differences. Patrick was initially devastated by the separation, whereas Gina was immediately relieved; apparently, the former couple has not spoken in years. Neely didn't stay off TV forever, though her days as a celebrity chef were over. She is currently on the Bravo program To Rome for Love which follows several women as they go to Rome, Italy, in search of romance and love. So it's sort of a reality TV show.

Lee Michael Harrison convinced a number of investors he was a celebrity chef before being found out as a fraud

Lee Michael Harrison was, briefly, in the minds of a few, a celebrity chef worth investing in. However the primary reason people invested money with this man had nothing to do with cooking, but rather with cellphone technology. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's take a step back. Harrison had indeed worked in restaurants before, but as an untrained cook, not a lead chef. What Harrison was a leading man at was lying. He convinced a number of investors that he was a successful restaurateur, a celebrity chef on the verge of launching a Food Network show called Cut, and that, inexplicably, he was the owner of a technology called "Capture" that would prevent cellphone calls from dropping.

Harrison claimed he would soon be selling Capture for more than six billion dollars, and led on by this claim and his apparent celebrity chef fame, at least two couples were bilked out of at least $20,000 each. When the whole scheme was finally unearthed, Harrison was convicted of fraud, forced to return all ill-gotten funds and pay fines, and was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. (Which is four times longer than another notable chef, Martha Stewart, spent in prison back in 2005 after her own shady dealings with investors, by the way.)