Emeril Lagasse has a nightly show on the Food Network, a failed sitcom and a catchphrase. He is, in the currency of the times, an American icon. Clint Stoerner quarterbacks America's team. He is merely a future trivia question.
Strange, but true. Flipping through cable, browsing newspapers or magazines, even strolling through a mall, you will encounter at least one celebrity chef. They whip up meals on morning talk shows, hard-sell products on QVC, offer guided tours of culinary regions and appear at conventions. Ask people to name the Food Network's prime-time lineup, and most will at least respond with Emeril and that British guy. Ask them to point out someone on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or the guy who sings that execrable single "Best I Ever Had," and you'll likely draw blank stares. American chefs, in other words, have become heroes, often surpassing musicians and athletes in the popular imagination.
Never, in the history of the culinary arts, have so many big-name chefs dominated the scene: Emeril, Bobby Flay, Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing, Jan Can Cook, Molto Mario. The editors of Food & Wine magazine noticed Emeril Lagasse in 1991, shortly after he emerged from the kitchen of New Orleans' Commander's Palace and opened his own restaurant. Later that year, Esquire highlighted Emeril's as "Restaurant of the Year." Picking up on the rising media acclaim, the James Beard Foundation honored Lagasse as the best chef in the southeast region. Cookbooks, appearances and fame followed. New York's Flay took the same route: a glowing review or two, recognition by a national foundation, a cookbook, a TV series and stardom.
"It's kind of strange, this adoration chefs receive," says Marc Cassel, executive chef of the Green Room, oft-mentioned as one of the best chefs in Dallas. "I've never understood the phenomenon--how someone who never finished college can be applauded by mayors and brain surgeons. It's just weird. Very gratifying, but very bizarre."
The extension of celebrity into the kitchen coincides with--and perhaps drives--the expansion of American taste. Consumers now spend more than $128 billion annually on meals in high-end restaurants and routinely purchase extra virgin olive oil, goat cheese and shiitake mushrooms for home use. "Star chefs bring new ideas and excitement into a market," says Al Biernat, owner of Al's Prime Steaks and Seafood. "It's healthy to have them around."
Healthy, perhaps. But is it wise?
"In Dallas there's too much focus on getting a name chef and creating overnight success for the restaurant," complains Michael Costa, president of DMC Hospitality, a Dallas-based consulting and management firm. "We all know there's more to success than that." According to Costa, if a chef reaches celebrity status within a certain market, investors inevitably toss around opportunities, encouraging the chef to open his or her own establishment. That kind of movement can devastate a market, creating high turnover and a rapid sequence of openings and closings. Ownership or partnership is generally the only way to keep them tied to a particular establishment. "The press is so overwhelming if you lose a star," Biernat says. "He takes all the marketing with him. If you build your restaurant around a name chef, someone will eventually invest in them, and they'll open their own restaurant and take some of your clientele with them. Your concept can't be wrapped around a personality." Voltaire, for example, heavily promoted chef George Papadopolous. His recent departure for New York created a major stir. On the positive side, Kent Rathbun turned Abacus into a consistent destination restaurant.
"If a chef isn't a real partner, they'll build celebrity status and move on," confirms Cindy Kurman of Chicago marketing firm Kurman Communications. "If you base your restaurant's reputation on a chef, you better be compensating the chef properly."
Most chefs find little glamour and less money in the kitchen. They work 12- or 16-hour days in crowded, stifling 100-degree rooms. An executive chef--the one who oversees the menu, purchases goods, hires and fires--typically earns about $48,000 each year in base salary, according to the National Restaurant Association. Sous chefs pull in a paltry $35,000 base. Celebrity chefs, on the other hand, often rake in six figures or more from endorsements, paid appearances and television programs. "Getting a TV deal is at the pinnacle, and you need an agent to do that," explains Kurman. "Talk shows, the Food Network, product appearances--they're all a by-product of celebrity, and it becomes a juggling act. If they're out of the restaurant, who's cooking? There's always a downside."
Cookbooks, too, require some form of public relations representation, but return little beyond celebrity. "People ask me all the time, 'When are you going to do a cookbook?'" says Richard Chamberlain, owner of Chamberlain's Steak & Chop House and Chamberlain's Fish Market Grill in Addison. "I haven't found the right reason. Would it be on the best-seller list? Probably not. Would it make me money? Probably not. I can't just do it for ego reasons; that's silliness."
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Yet celebrity status requires a certain amount of ego and an understanding of media. "I can't say journalists aren't responsible for creating celebrities," Cassel says. "But certainly a chef has to rise to the level where the media take interest." Unfortunately, the media tend to hype key individuals and ignore the teamwork necessary for a good restaurant. "Something that's always been difficult is the people that get credit for the food prepared in a restaurant, it's not always the celebrity chef creating the meal," Chamberlain points out. "But unfortunately the press is not interested in the second guy or the third guy. They want the main guy." Chamberlain once created a macadamia-encrusted halibut dish while working with Dean Fearing. The recipe appeared in Bon Appetit under Fearing's name--something not unprecedented in the industry. "I knew my position," Chamberlain says now. "He should receive the credit because everything he created benefited my career, too." Besides, Chamberlain adapted the dish from a recipe he discovered in a 1940s magazine, which brings up another oft-ignored truism: There are no new recipes.
And, perhaps, there is no more room for new celebrity chefs. The demands of the kitchen, the uncertainties of the market and the saturation of cooking shows all stress the industry. "Celebrity served its purpose 15 years ago or so, raising people's awareness," Cassel says. "But now it's getting static." Costa predicts a sharp drop in trendy, chef-driven restaurants over the next few years, the result of constant turnover and heavy marketing.
Many chefs, too, understand the dilemma created by celebrity status. Fame generates certain benefits--money, for example--but distances chefs from the kitchen. "The problem is that you make a decision as a chef: Do I want to try to become a national star and go on the circuit, or do I just want to run a restaurant?" Chamberlain says. He emerged from Fearing's tutelage poised for celebrity. "I woke up in the summer of 1992 in Aspen, Colorado, as chef of a small, ritzy hotel full of movie stars and famous people," Chamberlain recalls. "I was going to New York and cooking for major magazines, working 80 hours a week. I was 32, my daughter was just born, and I realized that at age 45 I don't want to be doing this, working every New Year's Eve, every Christmas. That's when I decided to move back to Dallas."
The mere existence of a celebrity chef never guarantees quality, particularly if in the process of promoting the name the restaurant loses sight of its mission. But, Kurman concludes, "Most of these people are passionate about what they do, and that type of person will always achieve some sort of celebrity, at least in their own market."