Many top chefs have evolved into multiproduct brand names. Is their transition from anonymity to ubiquity elevating the profession or leading it astray?
This article first appeared in the 15 May 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions.Visit the R&I websiteto find out more about the magazine or tosearch its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud boast their own wine labels. Charlie Palmer is building an eponymous luxury hotel in Las Vegas. Nobu Matsuhisa has starred in commercials touting everything from golf clubs to the Gap. And Tom Colicchio was named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive.
"Chefs are rock stars now, celebrities in their own right," says restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, who recruited dream teams of the some of the world's top chefs to Las Vegas' Mirage and Wynn hotels and who now partners with Chef Kerry Simon on dining hot spots in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Telluride, Colo. "Look at Emeril Lagasse] selling his company for $50 million to Martha Stewart [Omnimedia]. That's where you see that validation of the credibility of the chef as a brand, and Emeril is just the start. We're going to see a lot more of it."
Chefs are indeed a marketing force to be reckoned with. A hefty 30% of consumers say they have purchased products bearing Wolfgang Puck's name, and 22% have bought one or more of Lagasse's wide-ranging wares, according to R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study. Additionally, 15% have purchased branded merchandise from celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay, Todd English or Ming Tsai.
"Branding is a huge movement in the United States," says Bill Guilfoyle, associate professor of business management at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "It establishes in the consumer's mind an instant credibility for a product, whether the person promoting it is Ralph Lauren or Marc Jacobs, or Charlie Palmer or Bradley Ogden."
Chefs' star power isn't limited to the niche foodie nation, either. Three-quarters of all Americans say they're familiar with Puck; 68% recognize Lagasse; and 43% are aware of Flay, according to R&I's study. Nearly 30% are familiar with Batali and Ramsay, as well.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Forbes magazine added a chef category to its annual Top 100 celebrities list (recent members include Puck, Flay, Paula Deen, Palmer, Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten), while GQ includes a chef category in its annual Man of the Year issue (Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Jamie Oliver and David Chang all have been featured).
Such widespread recognition is especially impressive considering that until recently, chefs-especially in America-still were fighting to earn respect for their profession.
"Twenty years ago, it wasn't cool to be a chef," says Lagasse, who recently opened Table 10 in Las Vegas (and closed Emeril's in Atlanta), and who will debut his third television show next month. "You didn't have windows so people could look into your kitchen; you barely had lights. We've really come a long way."
For Better (Mostly), Not Worse As Lagasse's sentiment suggests, high-profile chefs aren't the only ones reaping the benefits of foodservice's increasingly higher public profile.
Celebrity chefs "make it easier for themselves to create restaurant opportunities, but they also create interest in trying new restaurants in general," observes Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies for Columbus, Ohio-based restaurant development and design firm WD Partners.
The industry's greater visibility also adds cachet to foodservice as a career path. Culinary schools are swelling with eager chefs-to-be, providing the country's 945,000 restaurants with a fresh talent supply.
"Thirty years ago, very few of the really smart kids in America went into cooking," says Wolfgang Puck, whose brand empire spans everything from frozen pizzas and soups sold in supermarkets to kitchenware that he touts on the Home Shopping Network. "Now instead of just wanting to become lawyers or doctors or go to Harvard Business School, the kids want to cook."
Growing prestige for culinary professions helps the industry in more tangible ways, too. Blau points out that greater respect for chefs' skills and expertise means a higher value is placed on their work, which translates into higher paychecks.
"When I moved to Las Vegas, it wasn't strange to see executive chefs of signature dining rooms making [salaries] in the $40,000 to $50,000 range," Blau says. "Now it wouldn't surprise me to hear they are in the $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000 range. That's a huge difference."
Chefs who lend their name to satellite locations of their restaurants can, without even devoting much time to the operations, see significant payouts as well. In a 2006 article in The New York Times, author Michael Ruhlman wrote that so-called "marquee chefs" typically are paid 3% to 5% of sales for opening such restaurants; in Las Vegas, he said, these deals can amount to anywhere from $300,000 to $900,000 for minimal work.
Granted, rank-and-file chefs won't see those kind of figures, but raising the pay ceiling is no small matter, given that the median compensation for executive chefs with 20-plus years' experience currently is $57,966, according to a recent survey from PayScale, a global online compensation data company in Seattle.
Yet the big picture isn't entirely rosy. There's little question that for chefs involved in extensive extracurricular activities, time can be spread thin among the restaurants that bear their names. That's why chefs such as Puck and Lagasse, both with multiple concepts, rely on carefully assembled teams of longtime kitchen and front-of-house staff.
Also at issue is the potential for unrealistic job and earnings expectations by aspiring chefs who expect immediate glamour and glitz instead of the reality of 80-hour workweeks, hot kitchens, and aching backs and feet.
"Some students may be coming into the industry who are starry-eyed and see this as a quick road to success, but we certainly don't endorse that idea," says the CIA's Guilfoyle.
What's The Attraction?
The Food Network-and the spate of food- and cooking-related television programs that its success has inspired-receives and deserves a significant share of the credit for shining the spotlight on chefs and the culinary world in general. Yet the root of Americans' current fascination with food, chefs and restaurants can be traced to an even simpler proposition: the average consumer's ability to relate to food.
"Everyone in the world eats, so everyone can have a personal connection to what's going on," says Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass.
That American cuisine and chefs-and along with them, American wineries, cheeses and other products-have come into their own also helped spark the public's culinary awakening, says Lagasse.
"Twenty-five years ago, people didn't even understand that Americans knew much about food," he notes.
For chefs themselves, reaching out to the public and sharing their passion for food and cooking is part of the motivation to extend their brands' reach. A television show can touch exponentially more people than even multiple restaurants can. The broader exposure also opens doors for chefs to pursue more wide-ranging career goals.
Tsai says the national attention he gained from his PBS show "Simply Ming" allowed him to branch out without having to open multiple restaurants around the country, which would have required him to spend too much time away from his family and Blue Ginger.
His current ventures include partnering with a major retailer on a line of food products such as frozen stir-fry kits and noodle bowls, working with a bamboo manufacturer to design "green" kitchenware such as bento boxes and sashimi plates, and making paid and volunteer appearances at events and fundraisers. He's also expanding Blue Ginger for the first time, adding three private dining rooms and an extended lounge area that will offer a more-casual, street-food-inspired menu.
"The pitfall of expanding [with multiple restaurants] is, what gives when you expand?" Tsai says. "Quality of life can give, and there's also quality of product." He adds: "Some can do it. Mario [Batali], for example; he's amazing. He has expanded systematically, and I've never had a bad meal at any of his restaurants. But how many people are like Mario? There aren't that many."
For chefs with multiple restaurants such as Puck, Lagasse, Vongerichten and Batali, a key motivation for opening new concepts is the desire to hold onto the top people in their organizations while offering them opportunities to grow.
"In the corporate world, people are promoted to become vice presidents, senior vice presidents or presidents-in a way, it's similar [with restaurants]," Puck says. "When you have good people, you want to retain them. In life it's all about opportunities. Nobody wants to get stuck anymore with just one job."
Lagasse, whose $50-million buyout deal sets the bar extremely high for other chefs hoping to one day spin off their own brands, says the sale of his nonrestaurant holdings to Martha Stewart Omnimedia wasn't something he planned. Once the opportunity arose, though, he realized that the resources and expertise Stewart's company could offer in the lifestyle sector could help expand his brand's reach in a big way.
"I'm still asking myself today, what's a lot of work?" he says. "Now I have more restaurants, more employees, two TV shows and a new show that starts filming next week. I've got a family; I like to fish. I don't know; I just try to fit as much as I can into 24 hours."
|- Chef||[Wolfgang Puck](http://www.wolfgang.com)||[Emeril Lagasse](http://www.emerils.com)||[Mario Batali](http://www.mariobatali.com)||[Gordon Ramsay](http://www.gordonramsay.com)||[Bobby Flay](http://www.bobbyflay.comj)|
|TV shows on air now||-||3||3||3||5|
|- Chef||[Nobu Matsuhisa](http://www.nobumatsuhisa.com)||[Jean- Georges Vongrichten](http://www.jean-georges.com)||[Todd English](http://www.toddenglish.com)||[Alain Ducasse](http://www.alain-ducasse.com)||[Joel Robuchon](http://www.joel-robuchon.com)|
|Current TV shows||-||-||3||0||1|
|- Chef||[Charlie Palmer](http://www.charliepalmer.com)||[Daniel Boulud](http://www.danielboulud.com)||[Thomas Keller](http://www.tkrg.org)||[Paula Deen](http://pauladeen.com)||[Rick Bayless](http://www.rickbayless.com)|
|Current TV shows||-||-||-||2||1|
|- Chef||[Ming Tsai](http://www.ming.com)||[Tom Colicchio](http://www.craftrestaurant.com)||[Charlie Trotter](http://wwwcharlietrotters.com)||[Martin Yan](http://www.yancancook.com)||[Alice Waters|
|Current TV shows||1||1||1||1||-|
|- Chef||- Q Score|
|- Gordon Ramsay||- 31|
|- Paula Deen||- 30|
|- Rachael Ray||- 28|
|- Emeril Lagasse||- 25|
|- Wolfgang Puck||- 15|