Shep Gordon is part Zelig, part "Most Interesting Man in the World," except he is a real person. In his working life he managed such diverse people as Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar, Groucho Marx and chefs Roger Vergé and Emeril Lagasse. He cooked for the Dalai Lama and his entire entourage.
He's also been credited with inventing the "celebrity chef," which he relates in a rollicking memoir, They Call Me Supermensch (An Anthony Bourdain Book, $26, 295 pages), published this week. The title comes from Mike Meyers' documentary, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, which told his improbable story, focusing on how he managed to make so many people famous while still being a mensch, a Yiddish term for a standup guy who treats people honorably.
I've known Gordon for more than 20 years. I met him in Maui, Hawaii, when Mark Ellman, one of the chefs he was helping to organize Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, invited me to Gordon's home for dinner. I recall a bottle of Bâtard-Montrachet, a tasting of sake and a big pan of coconut curry seafood cooked by Ellman.
A friendship with Vergé got Gordon into food and wine. Gordon watched hoteliers take advantage of Vergé and other famous chefs, and vowed to get them respect, and revenue. The book relates a great story about how he met Emeril Lagasse at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, where he was chef. That led to his helping launch Emeril's TV career, effectively becoming one of America's first celebrity chefs.
It was Vergé who opened the wine world to Gordon. "I was a Scotch guy," Gordon recalls after dinner in New York at Redfarm, owned of course by a friend. "I drank Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux with him. It wasn't just the wines, it was the people too. He took me to visit Jean-Louis Chave. The guy had giant holes in his sweater but he made these beautiful things."
At first he asked a wine collecting friend to buy him a case of whatever wine he was getting. "He was buying me 1982 Bordeaux," Gordon says, "didn't know what I had. Then I saw what the wines became in my cellar. I became a junkie." The cellar in Maui has grown to 2,000 bottles, which he opens with abandon for his dinner parties.
I asked him what he thinks of today's celebrity chef culture. The original idea, to get chefs the respect and the revenue their talent deserved, has morphed into something much different, he says.
"The sad fact is that celebrity has taken over our society today," he says. "Parents of talented young cooks used to ask me if I can get him a job at this or that highly regarded restaurant. Now they ask me how they can get the kid on Top Chef. The relationship between greatness and craft has become skewed. It's fame for fame's sake, or to make a dollar, and less to create something wonderful."
"These days, if you're not famous, it's who are you?"