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Foodservice Forum: Celebrity chefs reveal what it takes to be a star

by Christina DiMartino | July 26, 2009

"You have to be able to pick up a lemon and talk about it for half an hour, and do it with knowledge, interest and enthusiasm," said Bobby Flay, chef- restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality. "I tell people that if they want to be a chef, go to cooking school. If you want to be a television personality, go to acting school."

During the pre-Julia Childs and James Beard era, chefs were educated, trained and then employed by highly acclaimed restaurants. They worked behind spring-loaded doors separating their kitchens from the dining areas. Other than an occasional peek at guests eating their meals, chefs rarely had an opportunity to interact with them.

Today, however, the "chef's stage" is radically different. Celebrity and branded chefs are now as common as top-billing actors, famous authors and talk- show hosts, and customers beg to meet and converse with them.

"The hope of reaching chef stardom is a primary reason why a large number of people today attend culinary school to become chefs," Chef Flay added. "But many end up altering their goals when they discover the difficulties and challenges involved in reaching celebrity status. It is most important to be comfortable in your profession. Even if you have talent to be a television personality, you better know what you're doing in the kitchen."

The more popular branded chefs become, the more opportunities are presented to them for public appearances. Event participation can create attention and add to the chef's popularity, but most top chefs quickly learn to schedule their time carefully.

Celebrity chef endorsement fees cover a broad range -- from a few thousand dollars for a local chef to attend a social event or trade event to over $100,000 for a top chef's product endorsement. Event producers and corporations take on major expenses by hiring top chefs for appearances, but they can pay off in a big way. A popular chef can, for example, bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for an organization by making appearances at social events. A famous chef's endorsement on a product can send sales skyrocketing.

Rick Bayless gained popularity in upscale Mexican cuisine, and is now a chef- restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality. "Besides endorsement and charity events, branded chefs face schedules packed full of television appearances, including network series and special programs, radio shows, photo sessions, writing and fact checking books and author appearances with lectures and book signings," said Chef Bayless. "It is important to try to pick the most beneficial events and appearances that coordinate with my current projects, but it is always a full schedule."

In 1996, Chef Bayless founded a prepared food line of salsas, chips and grilling rubs under the "Frontera Foods" label.

"Television programs are highly beneficial but are also the least accessible," he added. "They offer a tremendous amount of exposure by bringing you into many homes at one time. But I don't underestimate other events, even the smaller local ones, especially those that benefit good causes."

Chef Bayless is on the board of Chef's Collaborative, a national group of chefs that supports environmentally sound agricultural practices. He also has been active in Share Our Strength, one of the United States' larger hunger advocacy organizations.

These groups and others, like Taste of the Nation, Meals on Wheels and health and disease organizations, help chefs gain a great deal of visibility and build a solid and loyal following. They are often repetitive events, which help chefs get their names in front of the public. At the same time, they are working for the betterment of the causes they endorse.

In 2002, after more than 20 years as executive chef of Tra Vigne and several other Napa Valley restaurants, Michael Chiarello left the restaurant business to dedicate his time to "NapaStyle," a high-end catalogue that offers cookware, gifts and house wares. In September 2006, the company opened its first retail store in Berkeley, CA. Besides overseeing the catalog and retail operation, he continues to make appearances on the Food Network and other television shows.

"One show may air 10 times and reach millions of people," said Chef Chiarello. "I also have a direct relationship with an audience of as many as 100 people in my cooking classes. These are hugely rewarding experiences."

A combination of personality, talent, education, training and other traits must coalesce for a chef to reach celebrity or branded status. But energy, showmanship and proficiency in a culinary category are also invaluable. Walter Staib, owner of Philadelphia's historic City Tavern, cookbook author and popular public personality, claims that the benefits of being branded includes having a full reservation slate in his restaurant.

"It is a tremendously rewarding career," said Chef Staib. "At age 60, I have to put more effort into staying fit and energized than younger chefs. I exercise every day and I work every day, often late into the night. Chefs who choose this path must be prepared to accept the responsibility that accompanies it, like always working to set a good example for your industry. Once you reach a status level, you have to work hard to maintain it."

Chef Chiarello added that television chooses the chef, the chef doesn't choose television. "Unlike an actor who goes for auditions, you have to have a personal style of cooking that is within the needs of the viewer," he said. "The market you are performing in front of must also support your style. All great artists have their own style, and chefs can learn to develop their own. I feel I am more of a craftsman than an artist. For example, I generally saut? the onion before I add the garlic, and then I add the herbs. Today's chefs are in a new era. Instead of spending a lot of time with masters, they are trying to go out on their own with a unique style. But experience and training [are] imperative. People taste with their nose, mouth and eyes, but they ultimately taste with their heart. A dish brings back a memory, and chefs must be well trained and experienced in order to satisfy this taste. Learn and experience first, then step out on your own with your style."

A good example of Chef Chiarello's signature dishes is his sloppy Giuseppe. The dish is similar to a "Sloppy Joe," but with an Italian twist. He said that choosing the right tomatoes is key to recipe perfection, and training has taught him which qualities a good tomato must have.

Chef Staib agreed that celebrity chefs must use only the freshest and highest-quality food products, including fruits and vegetables. "City Tavern receives only fresh, seasonal produce," he said. "We get deliveries about three times a week and over the weekend. And we are big supporters of locally grown produce."

Chef Staib's signature dishes include artichoke and smoked chicken, and herbed barley asparagus, usually served as an accompaniment. Both white and green asparagus also play an important role on his menu.

On July 1, Chef Flay opened Bobby's Burger Palace at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT. It is his tribute to America's regional flavors and traditions, made with only premium-quality ingredients and condiments. Sides include french fries served with Bobby's Burger Palace fry sauce and beer-battered onion rings along with griddled cheese sandwiches.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that nearly 3.1 million chef, cook and food preparation workers are now employed in the United States. Of that number, about 125,000 are chefs and head cooks.

Its most recent report also states that job openings for chefs, cooks and food preparation workers are expected to be plentiful through 2014, but competition should be keen for jobs in the top kitchens of higher-end restaurants. It does not predict what percentage of those chefs will reach celebrity status.