Professional amateurs everywhere, but most not up to the mark

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 2012

The Herald recently reported on an award-winning, 18-metre long kitchen which included a scullery, an outdoor kitchen, two wine fridges and two regular fridges.

”It suited our needs as a family to have dedicated zones, for cooking, food preparation, consumable and non-consumable storage,” the owner was reported as saying.

Two things came to mind. First, I thought, wasn’t this a little bit bonkers? But then I wondered about a link between that story and the one on the next page, part of a series about Sydney’s struggling top-end restaurants (“Hammered chefs tighten belts to stay in kitchen”).

The owners of the awarded kitchen are not chefs, but seem to have acquired their attitudes, and many of their external trappings. They represent a trend you could call the rise of the professional amateur.

You can imagine their dinner parties. Dishes inspired by recipes from Michelin-endorsed restaurants; pictures uploaded on Instagram; someone tweeting a review.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising the restaurant and news media industries are struggling, when putting on a chef’s – or reporter’s – hat can be as simple as hitting the laptop, iPad or smartphone. When we can do it ourselves, the mystique surrounding the professional can start to evaporate like the alcohol in a French sauce.

The internet has brought a world of information into our homes and our hands, fostering a DIY culture for anyone with a bit of time and a desire for knowledge. Clearly there is an upside. If you can Google and have the patience to follow a homemade how-to video, you can fix your own motorbike, lay some tiles, or maybe teach yourself ukulele.

In some fields the professional amateur can now bypass old gatekeepers such as agents, editors and record companies. All you need is a laptop and an X-rated imagination to attract a few million readers for your self-published erotic novel. And in a phenomenon pioneered by bands such as Arctic Monkeys, anyone with a home recording studio, a webcam, a modicum of talent and a dash of dumb luck can sell songs and even concert tickets.

The rise of the professional amateur is celebrated, and positively encouraged, by programs such as MasterChef, The Block and The Voice.

In The Voice, the line between professional and amateur became almost completely blurred. When the show began, contestants frequently professed to be fans of the judges, including singers Seal and Keith Urban. By the end, it was the famous judges declaring themselves fans of their newly famous charges. The duets performed by contestants and coaches in the final show almost dissolved any lingering divisions completely.

There’s something seductive and pleasing about seeing a schoolteacher, or a stay-at-home mum, or a veteran of refuges like The Voice winner Karise Eden, becoming interior stylists or cookbook authors or famous singers almost overnight. After a long era when occupations became increasingly specialised, it harks back to earlier times, when it wasn’t unusual to dabble, and even excel, in a number of trades or skills.

But there’s also a downside. Just because someone can jump in front of a camera doesn’t mean they deserve an audience (Craig Emerson included). And just because someone can set up a Twitter account or blog to send their random thoughts out into the world doesn’t mean we can do away with the traditional news media – editors and publishers with a commitment to old-fashioned values such as, say, accuracy. A self-appointed pundit broadcasting from his or her couch can never replace the time consuming, difficult and costly work of real investigations.

Similarly, just because someone with zero medical expertise can type ”vaccination” into Google and end up surfing out in the scientific fringes to find the one study (now discredited) against childhood inoculation doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for them to set up a professional-looking website advising against potentially lifesaving vaccinations.

Not long ago, the chef Matt Moran was interviewed on radio talking about the 20-odd hour days he worked when still a teenager, developing his now encyclopaedic knowledge of his field. While it might be nice to think during the duller moments of our everyday jobs that we could turn a weekend or evening hobby into a career, it’s the Matt Morans of the world who are busy preserving, and building on, the ocean of knowledge that the professional amateurs are splashing about in. And while it’s pretty safe in the shallows, you ought to know what you’re doing when venturing into deeper waters.

When Julie Powell blogged about her year working her way through the recipes in chef Julia Child’s cookbook, the result made for a good movie. But I would happily bet that the Le Cordon Bleu-trained Child made a much better meal.

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