Four weeks ago, all the Gordon Ramsay restaurants in Hong Kong – Maze Grill, London House and Bread Street Kitchen – quietly and suddenly shut their doors. A month earlier, Jamie Oliver’s outlets in Hong Kong and Taipei shut. Other familiar, if not as famous, kitchen names have also recently shut their restaurants. Not all were closed because of the coronavirus – last year’s political protests undoubtedly had a hand. But the culinary exodus makes me wonder: is the era of celebrity chefs over? Every food and dining enterprise in Hong Kong is having a hard time now, but the so-called celebrity chef restaurants seem more susceptible than most to financial pressure. This might have something to do with the fact that these franchises are all about finance. All restaurants want to make money, but Ramsay didn’t open in Hong Kong to come here and cook. He brought his brands over because we’re a lucrative market. Cooking is meant to be a bespoke creative act. But a chef can only physically prepare so many meals at one time. Beyond that, you need an assembly line working from set recipes. That’s not a criticism – most restaurants work this way. But customers assume that famous chefs, if they don’t do most of the cooking at their restaurants, will at least inspect each plate to ensure it meets his or her standards. At in absentia celebrity chef destinations, the degree of separation between star and staff is so great, there’s no way the name on the marquee can have a hand in any way. In most cases, they’re just a nominal figurehead and hired consultant, sketching out a menu and, once or twice a year, flying in to do press interviews and tell their designated chef what to tweak and change. Are the dishes still representative of these famous Michelin-star cooks? Well, that depends on your perspective. Is a T-shirt at Armani Exchange on sartorial par with a custom-tailored Giorgio Armani couture dress? Essentially, the T-shirt is what you’re ordering for dinner at most celebrity chef eateries. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Most chefs are micromanagers enough that their vision filters down even through so many diluted layers of underlings. Everybody is hurting, but chefs are more likely to stick with a venue if it’s a passion project But Hong Kong, as mature a gastronomic market as anywhere in the world, appears to be tiring and growing cynical of such establishments. Perhaps diners are finally beyond falling for the hype of a famous name and fancy designer decor. We’re judging food on its own merit. I think we also expect chefs to be here cooking if we’re paying their exorbitant ransoms for a meal. After initial honeymoons of full houses and great reviews, a lot of places were struggling even in the best of times. No doubt, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the demise of some establishments. It has also made clear who is in Hong Kong just for the bottom line. Everybody is hurting, but chefs are more likely to stick with a venue if it’s a passion project. David Lai is not likely to close Neighborhood if he has one bad fiscal quarter. Daniel Calvert is at Belon every night, so he’s going to fight for his restaurant if the Black Sheep group finds it necessary to make cuts. On the other hand, Hong Kong is just one asset among a large portfolio for the likes of Ramsay, Oliver and Ducasse. There’s a phrase a lot of bosses like to use when it comes to firing staff and cutting costs: “It’s just business, nothing personal.” Maybe that’s also why Hong Kong diners stopped going to these celebrity chef restaurants – it’s just about business, nothing personal.