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Sietsema on Those Annoying Honorifics

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One of the strangest aspects of our current food-obsessed age is the status we've afforded chefs, elevating them above other professions and making them into little demi-gods. Tune into any episode of Chopped or Top Chef, and see the hosts and judges calling every contestant Chef This or Chef That, pronouncing the title with such straight-faced solemnity that you almost burst out laughing—especially if the contestant happens to be a caterer from a small town in Arkansas or the head cook in an Applebees. This effete and fawning form of address is known as an "honorific," which Webster's defines as "belonging to or constituting a class of grammatical forms used in speaking to or about a social superior."

Who else in our society gets this sort of treatment? Military officers, for sure, but certainly not letter carriers ("Thank you for that package, Letter Carrier Smith") or the guy who digs up the sewer pipes ("Good day to you, Sanitary Engineer Skinner") or even teachers ("Thanks for my report card, Classroom Director Stevens"). But turn on any Food Network show and you'll see someone pompously pronouncing, "Good job, Chef Diddlywhit!" And peppered throughout the program you'll find the word "Chef" used almost as a formal pronoun, as in, "Chef is now tossing arugula with pickled parsnips in a blue cheese dressing laced with edible wood shavings."


There's something slightly undemocratic about all this. It seems like a throwback to a more formal and class-divided age, when the landed gentry were addressed as Milord and Milady. Nowadays, we're still expected to address our physicians as "Doctor So and So," though it erects something of a social wall between you and the person who gives you a rectal exam. Academics with PhDs sometimes demand to be called "Doctor" too, though doing so seems in poor taste, as if social superiority were automatically conferred with an advanced degree in, say, Phy Ed or English Lit.


Maybe the TV version of the "Chef" honorific started with Iron Chef Japan, the very first of the cooking contest shows, where stilted forms of address—referring to the goofy host as The Chairman, for example—were part of what was obviously comic shtick. Not so in more recent shows, where being in the kitchen at any level merits a pompous title. And remember, Top Chef not only treats contestants as effete members of a special class, it pretends to create celebrity chefs who are then foisted upon the public in expensive restaurants, often with inadequate chefly skills. How many former Top Chef contestants are currently cooking in New York, and how many of them are really any good?

Don't get me wrong, I love talented chefs and crave their food—I just don't want to have to address them as Chef. Or maybe we should accord all restaurant employees the same respect. From now on, when someone says, "I'm Jamie and I'll be your waiter tonight," I'll faithfully reply, "Thank you, Waitperson Jamie, I look forward to being served by you."

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