Thursday, August 9, 2012

Celebrity Chefs

In Sunday's New York Times Business section was a piece on Marcus Samuelsson. He is the chef/owner and driving force behind the restaurant Red Rooster Harlem. The piece examined him as a chef, a food/cooking entrepreneur and a brand. In addition to Red Rooster he has five other restaurants and has a line of cookware coming soon from Macy's (Macy's has ended its association with Martha Stewart).

I'm a food television junkie (well I may be a food junkie too, but not junk food so I guess that just makes me a foody): The Food Network, Cooking Channel, BBQ University and other random cooking shows. As a result I am very familiar with today's crop of celebrity chefs. They populate these programs and Samuelsson has been one of them. He had been a rising star in Manhattan's restaurant scene but his appearances on these 'cooking' shows has elevated his profile.

We have had a lot of celebrity chefs over the years: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Paul Prudhomme, James Beard, etc. But the phenomenon has now gone beyond chefs as only restaurant owners or cookbook authors. They are now branding themselves and expanding their food empires to include restaurants, cookware, cookbooks, even prepared foods. They are building multi-million dollar businesses.

I lived in Los Angeles when Wolfgang Puck opened his first Spago, the one on Sunset Blvd, in 1982. He has parlayed that into a brand and a very lucrative business. There are Spago's everywhere. He even has one in terminal 7 at LAX. He was the model for the modern group of celebrity chefs but many of them are taking it farther, faster. Samuelsson is a good example.

As I said, I am a food television show junkie. And it is the proliferation of these shows on cable (and to a certain degree public television) that has given these chefs the kind of exposure they might not otherwise be able to attain and that has allowed them to grow their brand so much more quickly. In the past (when Puck was growing) you had to gain notoriety by writing successful cookbooks and operating successful restaurants in places like L.A. or New York, and overtime the reputation would build and could be leveraged for more success.

Mr. Samuelsson is still young but he has come a long way. He was born in Ethiopia but was raised by foster parents in Sweden (thus the surname). He has cooked his way to great success so far, but that has also been accompanied by some excellent business acumen and winning personalities. That is also true of his celebrity chef peers.

I think it is time for me to cook.

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