The announcement in June that Imbert, 40, would take over the illustrious Plaza Athenee, was met with much harrumphing and pursing of lips among the fusty corners of the French culinary world.
“It’s like getting a rocker to perform at the Opera de Paris,” one “expert des grands tables” told Challenges magazine.
But for many of France’s top chefs, it is hardly a surprise.
“A chef that stays in the kitchen, who isn’t ‘Instagrammable’, reaching out to the public, is no longer in the race. Restaurants can’t survive without publicity. There are so many of us,” Christian Le Squer, head chef at the three Michelin-starred Le Cinq at the George V hotel in Paris, told AFP.
Le Squer, 58, learned this lesson from the best: he was assigned to train Imbert during his winning performance on Top Chef, the phenomenally successful TV competition, in 2012.
He gave him tips of the trade, and Imbert returned the favour by helping Le Squer set up his Instagram account.
Ducasse may have had more Michelin stars than anyone in the world, “but he perhaps didn’t find his audience on Instagram,” said Le Squer.
‘Trial by TV’
Even more than social media, Top Chef has changed the rules of the game.
First launched in the United States, the show arrived in France in 2010, pitting professional cooks against each other in a knock-out competition.
It has become more than just an amusing side dish for chefs — it is “a trampoline to success”, said chef Mory Sacko, who took part last year.
He used the publicity to help launch his restaurant MoSuke, bringing the flavours of francophone Africa to the French capital, and now fronts his own TV show.
Le Squer said that before, chefs made a name for themselves in the industry by winning professional contests and titles, such as “the best craftsman of France”.
“Now, it’s trial by TV,” he added.
Helene Darroze — a decorated chef with five Michelin stars — has also become a household name thanks to her regular appearances on Top Chef.
“The competition attracts more and more very talented young people,” she told AFP.
“I’m astonished — they all have an agent. I’ve never had an agent in my life,” she added.
But Darroze sees this as a positive thing — elevating the job of chef in the eyes of the public.
And social media presence proved vital for many chefs during the hard months of pandemic-induced closures.
Imbert is the perfect illustration of the new trend, using his victory in 2012 to launch a restaurant in partnership with Pharrell Williams and pick up more than 400,000 followers on Instagram.
“Ducasse was a man of big ideas, but he lacked a narrative,” Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, head of PR firm MCBG Conseil, said in a recent editorial.
“Jean Imbert, on the other hand, is always telling stories — about his grandmother, the time he dined with Pharrell Williams — with words, with images, with videos, with selfies…”
It marks a cultural shift, he added, as the importance of Michelin stars fades in comparison to the power of a selfie by model Bella Hadid in your restaurant kitchen.
‘A dangerous game’
When David Gallienne, from the Jardin des Plumes in Giverny, won Top Chef in 2020, his Instagram followers jumped from 5,000 to 50,000.
“Social media is part of how we are known and exist today,” he told AFP.
He ran online masterclasses during France’s lockdowns last year, followed by a competition in which participants compared their culinary creations on Instagram — with a free lunch in Gallienne’s restaurant for the winner.
It’s all part of the job, even if everyone is acutely aware that a big online presence carries risks.
“You’ve got to play the game, even if it can be a very dangerous game,” said Gallienne.
“You’ve got to weigh your words carefully. They can just as easily hurt you as help you. It’s a full-time job in itself, and in the future, I will probably delegate it to someone else entirely.”