At the turn of the 20th century, a handsome chef and self-proclaimed prince by the name of Joe Ranji Smile captivated the nation. Prominent media outlets raced to profile him, and in some cases, went so far as to anoint him the country’s first Indian chef. Some historians have gone even further to call Smile America’s first celebrity chef, writes Mayukh Sen for Vox. But as quickly as he rose, Smile soon fell from grace, mired by controversy over immigration woes and tabloid scrutiny over his personal life. More than a century later, his arc continues to reveal a lot about the role that mainstream media plays in mythologizing chefs, most of whom are white and men, and whose gifts are seen as at least partially rooted in their sexual assertiveness. To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about Smile, and most of the details he shared with the press, including his real name, haven’t actually been verified. Maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what makes certain stories, despite their fictitiousness, so engrossing?

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