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“Food Changed My Life”: The Chef Jeff Project and the Politics of Rehabilitative Cooking

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As one of the most popular entertainment genres in the US, food media continues to attract significant attention from communication and cultural critics. In an effort to complicate conversations regarding the relationship among food media, identity construction, and power, this paper examines Food Network's reality-based series, The Chef Jeff Project (TCJP). TCJP is a seemingly “groundbreaking” series featuring ex-con turned chef Jeff Henderson who attempts to change the lives of “at risk” youth through the power of food. We argue that, despite its altruistic appearance, TCJP appropriates normative politics surrounding kitchen culture, “good taste,” and food service in ways that reinforce participants’ Otherness, the privileged normalcy of their clientele, and the viewing audience. We argue that TCJP represents the evolving subgenre “rehabilitative cooking,” a form of makeover media that aims to normalize so-called “at-risk” subjects through highly supervised unpaid (or underpaid) culinary labor under the guise of philanthropy.
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Keywords: Culinary tourism; Food media; Otherness; Reality television; Rehabilitative cooking

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2013-03-01

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