Lidia Bastianich remembers gazing north up Fifth Avenue and finding it empty of all traffic.
As grand marshal of New York’s Columbus Day parade, Bastianich was set to lead more than 100 bands, dozens of floats and 35,000 marchers up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 79th Street, in a celebration of Italian-American culture. Millions of people around the world would be watching, along the parade route and on their televisions.
“I got to the starting point and laughed,” recalls the well-known chef, restaurateur and cooking show host. “Usually, I have to dodge the traffic on Fifth. This time the street was all mine.”
Only the third woman following actresses Sophia Loren and Susan Lucci to be named grand marshal of the annual parade, Bastianich was the first chef and restaurateur to be so honored. The decision to select her, she says, sends “a message about the importance of food culturally.”
But it says more than that, too. The choice of a chef and restaurateur to lead one of the country’s largest parades reflects a more sweeping trend—one that has seen a handful of the nation’s culinary professionals elevated into the rarified circle of instantly recognizable celebrities who, through their craft, have helped to redefine our cultural landscapes.
The cult of the celebrity chef isn’t new, but it has exploded over the past five years almost beyond all recognition. Certainly, many Americans long have been able to identify a few kitchen stars like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, who would occasionally show up as guests on TV shows where they demonstrated the particulars of a recipe or two. But even in those cases, most people didn’t expect those chefs to stray too far from their kitchens.
Today, though, the American public is not surprised to find culinary professionals anywhere and everywhere. Few television viewers, in fact, were probably taken aback when Puck—whom Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” calls the most famous chef in America—was portrayed on an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Scott Feldman, whose New York-based Two Twelve Management & Marketing firm represents several of the country’s most prominent chefs and restaurateurs, says this sea change is something the industry had hoped for many years to achieve.
“This category, this genre has been embraced as part of the fabric of our country,” he says, “and when you start to see the transcendence [of cooking professionals] into popular culture, you have to say this is phenomenal. It’s not just about food and drink. People are buying into it as a piece of lifestyle.”
This tectonic shift in cultural perception has resulted in the sweeping chef-as-a-brand phenomenon, which is enabling a growing number of talented culinarians to expand their influence beyond the four walls of their restaurants.
“Now it can be about having a brand name,” Feldman says, “about doing brand extensions and building a bigger portfolio of assets.”
Gordon Hamersley, owner of the 20-year-old Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston, says the cult of celebrity chef in America has transformed the restaurant industry.
“When I entered the business in the 1970s, the choices for chefs were limited,” he says. “You could be a chef in a restaurant or a hotel, or maybe own your own restaurant. Now food is so central to a certain portion of the American public, we see chefs coming out of their kitchens and doing other things. The possibilities are endless.”
To be sure, many gifted chefs remain happy to focus their energies solely on the restaurants that made them famous, cooking for customers who expect to find them in the kitchen or greeting guests at the door.
But as the reigning high priests of food, professional chefs are now free to express themselves in a variety of ways. In fact, so many avenues of opportunity are open to chefs, they need to weigh their options with great care. They can operate multiple restaurants, write cookbooks, star on a television show, consult for other foodservice or retail companies, produce their own line of branded products, or lend their name to another company’s product lines.
All of that is seen as possible now, as demonstrated by chefs like Bastianich, Puck, Todd English, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, individuals who constantly are scanning the business horizon to find new culinary worlds to conquer. Puck alone has metamorphosed his long-popular flagship, Spago, into a sprawling business concern. With some 14 fine-dining restaurants, more than 80 grab-and-go concepts, widely distributed frozen pizzas, a line of canned soups and a full line of kitchenware, his companies are said to post annual sales in excess of $350 million.
“At the end of the day, there are endless possibilities,” Feldman says. “At the root of it, it’s about the opportunities you make for yourself and the team you build.”
But the key to such ambitious growth extends well beyond the vision—or even the capabilities—of a signal individual. As a result, chefs who have parlayed their name into a powerfully recognized brand have done so through the creation of a business infrastructure.
“If you want to build restaurants, you need a great operational team, a publicity arm and chefs who understand your vision,” Feldman says. “If you want to do cookbooks, you might need to work with an author. If you’re doing TV, you need someone to do outreach for the media.”
Todd English compares the business structure to running a restaurant.
“You have all different parts, different specialists,” he says. “Like in a restaurant where you have a pastry chef or banquet chef, in your business you have people who understand the different dynamics. But you have to have competent people.”
The foundation of the English empire was established when he opened his award-winning 55-seat restaurant, Olives, in Charlestown, Mass., in 1989. Today, he operates more than 20 locations around the country under such names as Figs, Bluezoo, and KingFish Hall. In addition, he appears on television cooking shows, writes cookbooks and places his brand on lines of cookware, dinnerware, food products and kitchen accessories sold on the Home Shopping Network.
Future plans call for the opening of the Bonfire concept in airports in Boston, New York and Las Vegas as well as a restaurant partnership with “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria in Beso in Los Angeles. English also has a deal with Delta Air Lines, which introduced a line of menu selections English designed for in-flight customers.
An early star of the chef-as-a-brand movement, the high-octane English also has acknowledged that his growth hit some rocky patches along the way. A lawsuit filed against him several years ago by a former partner in the Olive Group Corp., James Cafarelli, resulted in the pair settling out of court and Cafarelli taking one of the company’s Boston restaurants along with another operation in Florida. English also was embarrassed when the original Olives in Boston was shuttered twice in eight days for inspection violations.
Part of the problem, he explained at the time, was that he didn’t have the necessary business team in place to help manage his burgeoning empire. These days he operates with several umbrellas—all of the restaurants line up under the Todd English Restaurants banner while cookware and other projects are handled by Todd English Worldwide. He also has started a television production company and is building a studio in New York to develop shows for him and possibly others.
English also cautions against taking every deal that comes down the pike, saying that a brand must have a consistent message.
“You can’t be a label slapper,” he says, noting that he recently turned down a request to do an infomercial for a tea company. “No matter how lucrative a deal it might be, if it looks like it might hurt the integrity of what you’re trying to do, you need to turn it down.”
On the other hand, experts say, it’s important to keep an open mind when presented with a deal. Tom Colicchio, the New York-based chef-restaurateur who owns and operates 16 restaurants under the names of Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar and ‘wichcraft, initially resisted repeated offers to audition as a judge for a reality show the producers of “Project Runway” were working on for Bravo television called “Top Chef.”
“They wanted me to do a screen test, and I said no,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be right for me.”
Despite his continued resistance, though, the producers kept pressing him, eventually winning him over. It was, he admits, a smart move.
“I had no idea how successful ‘Top Chef’ would be,” he says, “and what’s great is that the industry has really accepted it.”
The show is not particularly demanding, requiring only about 10 percent of his time, he says.
“It takes about a month to shoot 16 episodes,” Colicchio says.
The celebrity status accorded with having a hit show has its benefits too. While Colicchio says he still isn’t exactly comfortable being recognized on the street, his role in “Top Chef” helps draw people to his restaurants—“especially in the summer when the tourists are in town.” He noted that his affiliation with the show also helps when he expands out of his New York home base into other cities where he is not as well known.
Colicchio “still turns down more deals than he accepts,” and acknowledges the need for a strong business structure. When the company started to expand more rapidly last year, he realized he needed to reorganize the company. As evidence, he points to the opening of Craftsteak in the summer of 2006.
“When we opened Craftsteak in New York, it got bad reviews from [The New York Times restaurant critic] Frank Bruni—the first bad reviews in my life,” he says. “The team didn’t work out, we just didn’t have all hands on deck. As you grow, you tend to find inefficiencies and have to address them.”
He learned his lesson by the time he opened Craft in Los Angeles.
“I spent two months there,” he says. “I was there every night.”
He also established a new business structure for his restaurants. Craft and Craftsteak have been consolidated into Craft Worldwide, which maintains a small management team. At the same time his 10 ‘wichcraft sandwich shops in New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco were gathered into a separate company, which he runs with two operating partners. Three more ‘wichcrafts are slated to open over the next four months.
Lidia Bastianich also is a believer in establishing a strong business infrastructure, which, in her case, proves to be something of a family affair. Working with her son, Joseph, and daughter, Tanya Manuali, Bastianich owns several of the top upscale Italian restaurants in New York, including Del Posto, of which Mario Batali is a major stakeholder. She also writes cookbooks, operates her own television production company and develops products for retail sales. She and her son have branched out into the wine business, operating two Italian vineyards.
Beginning in the 1970s with a small, nine-table restaurant called Buona Villa in Queens, N.Y., Bastianich crossed the East River to Manhattan where she opened the award-winning Felidia. Along the way she worked to establish herself as an authority on Italian cuisine and culture, branching out gradually, first with a book deal and later with a cooking show for the Public Broadcasting Service.
Over the years she has made several series for PBS, all based on cookbooks she has written. Her latest, “Lidia’s Italy,” is seen on more than 300 PBS channels in the United States as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Asia. About 4 million people are estimated to watch each show.
As a result of her television success, Bastianich has diversified even further, forming her own production company, Tavola Productions, which long-time employee Shelly Burgess and her daughter oversee. Bastianich says that each television series is linked to a cookbook, which together take about two years to write and produce. When it comes time to shoot the series, specialists are hired on a temporary basis, she explains. Production can be expensive, she says, noting that her various sponsors cover all costs.
So far Bastianich has made about 180 shows that explore Italian cooking. In the meantime, she says another book and television series are in her future, as is the launch of several retail products. She also is considering expanding her more casual restaurant concept, Lidia’s, which has two locations in Kansas City, Mo., and Pittsburgh.
While numerous opportunities to build a brand are available to today’s top chefs, many view television as the gold ring on the culinary merry-go-round. When chef-restaurateur Mario Batali—who in 2006 was the focus of a seven-page article in Time magazine—parted ways with TV’s influential Food Network in September, it generated headlines in the local New York papers.
More headlines followed when he was replaced on the hit show “Iron Chef” by chef-restaurateur Michael Symon. To get the job, however, Symon was pitted in competition against a number of talented chefs in the show’s Kitchen Stadium. It proved to be good television and immediately catapulted the veteran Cleveland chef into the national spotlight almost overnight.
While acknowledging that being named an Iron Chef already has resulted in a “tremendous amount of exposure,” Symon notes that the show requires only a few weeks of work each year.
“Because all of the chefs have restaurants, we do the filming in a three-week period,” he says. “Each chef fights six battles, and then goes back into the real world.”
Symon says the experience of competing in Kitchen Stadium is intense, adding: “You have to be able to think quickly on your feet. You also have to be very versatile.”
At the same time, he adds, “it still lets you be what you are: a chef.”
In addition, Symon is concentrating on other business opportunities. Working with his wife, Liz, and business partner, Doug Petkovic, Symon has been overseeing two Cleveland restaurants, Lola and Lolita, working on a cookbook called “Symon Says: Live to Cook,” consulting, and mulling new restaurant projects in Detroit and Las Vegas.
The anticipated expansion also is prompting Symon and his colleagues to establish a corporate office in the building that houses Lolita.
“As we take on more projects, we will probably add a couple of layers of management,” he says. “We want to grow smart.”
Walter Staib, the chef-proprietor of the historic American-flavored City Tavern in Philadelphia, was able to parlay his popular cookbook, “Black Forest Cuisine: The Classic Blending of European Flavors,” into a 26-episode cooking and travel show for the Comcast cable network. The show, which was scheduled to begin airing Dec. 2, focuses on the cuisine of Germany’s Black Forest.
Staib traveled to locations in his native Germany with a production team of 12 to shoot six episodes.
“We shot the shows in some of the places I worked when I was an apprentice in the 1960s,” Staib says. “And every town we visited, we met with the local media, too.”
The cost of producing the entire show, which Staib estimated to be about $350,000, was picked up by a sponsor, which merchandises a number of food products from the area.
However, some observers maintain that television is not necessarily for everyone.
“Sometimes it can go wrong,” Feldman says. “You’ll have people who say, ‘I’m good looking. I can be on TV.’ But it’s more than that. You need to have integrity and also be endearing and genuine to viewers.” At the same time, television-bred celebrity does not necessarily translate into a more robust foodservice career. Chef-restaurateur Rocco DiSpirito gained national exposure when he starred in the 2003 NBC reality show, “The Restaurant.” Yet the experience ended in a court battle with former partner Jeffrey Chodorow and DiSpirito’s being barred from even entering the restaurant he helped to create. Since then he has virtually stepped away from the restaurant business. In 2004 he closed his once-celebrated restaurant, Union Pacific, and these days writes cookbooks and focuses on establishing himself as a food personality.
Nor is television generally regarded as an absolute necessity for brand building. Innovative New York chef-restaurateur David Burke acknowledges that “television helps,” and appears on network shows like “Today.” But he also has expanded his business largely without the benefit of much television exposure to comprise five restaurants including davidburke & donatella, cookbooks, a consulting company and a retail food products arm.
He also is continuing to expand his business, and plans to open David Burke’s Primehouse and a licensed outlet of his casual concept, Burke in the Box, in Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.
To facilitate future growth, Burke is in the process of building up his company’s infrastructure by bringing all the restaurants under one umbrella and hiring a director of operations. He said he wants to add someone to handle retail product sales, too. He currently employs five people.
But while numerous opportunities are available for chefs to expand their business portfolio today, a core of culinary practitioners still prefer to keep things closer to home. Gordon Hamersley, who, together with his wife Fiona, has operated Boston’s top-rated Hamersley’s Bistro for the past two decades, is generally content with the status quo.
“This is a partnership with Fiona,” he says. “It’s not just about me—about Gordon Hamersley as a brand. And we both feel strongly that part of the appeal of the restaurant is the ownership presence. Our guests expect personal service. That’s how we created the restaurant we have today.”
Hamersley has considered opening other restaurants, “but it felt uncomfortable.”
“I think that if I spread myself too thin, I wouldn’t do a good job at anything,” he says. “I became a cook because I like to cook. I always wanted to be the best restaurant chef I could be, and I like the dynamic of what happens in a restaurant every night.
“I respect the people who can do it on a larger scale, but I’ve always defined things on my own terms, and running this restaurant makes me happy.”