The most trusted and renowned chefs of our time aren't necessarily the best at their trade. Someone's grandma bakes up a better pie than Martha Stewart. French chefs were mastering rich butter-based recipes centuries before Paula Deen's attempts to convert her blood into milk fat. And stressed out fry-cooks have been cursing up anger-inspired offerings at your local Denny's long before Gordon Ramsey made a reality show that relies on profanity. But can we really trust the cooking of an uninspired fast-food cook? Or, the French?! (Trim the fat from your grocery bill to reduce the impact of food cost on your budget. Check out 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
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Compared to the credibility that celebrity offers, even grandma's pie becomes suspect, which is why we've turned to the world's most entertaining and influential chefs to dictate our diets, write our recipes, sell us our cookware and host our favorite reality shows. Becoming one of these elite-level "chefs" may not always require official culinary training, but it does require a marketable personality, an obvious passion for food and the ability to get people excited about what's for dinner. Top celebrity chefs have amassed legions of devoted apprentices who consume nearly anything the chef is attached to, allowing a select few "Super Chefs" to build multi-million-dollar empires. Here's a look at the fortunes amassed by some of America's favorite celebrity chefs.
She may not have traditional chef training (which any true chef is fond of pointing out), but that hasn't kept Rachel Ray from becoming the highest-earning cook on TV. Buoyed by her perky demeanor, a trove of cute catch-phrases and the support of Oprah Winfrey's TV production studio, Ray has built a culinary empire based on her simple 30-minute-meal concepts. According to Forbes, Ray earns $18 million per year, and while she freely admits she's not a qualified chef, her fans don't seem to mind. Millions of people tune in each day to her syndicated talk show, as well as her three shows on The Food Network. She also endorses Dunkin' Donuts, has published numerous cookbooks and is the founder of her own magazine, "Every Day With Rachel Ray."
This Scottish cook was trained in Oxford and he refined his skills as a chef in restaurants throughout Europe. But anyone who's worked in a restaurant knows that the greatest proof of Gordon Ramsay's ability as a chef lies in his incredible proficiency in swearing. Truckers and sailors swap stories of the appalling language they've heard from cooks, and Ramsay's knack for motivating, shaming and intimidating his underlings with curses has made him legendary among his peers.
Not having dined in any of his 27 restaurants around the globe, I can't say much about his cooking ability; however, I do know that he could undercook Wellington and serve runny risotto, and millions of people would still tune in to see his five reality TV series. And some of these aren't just Food Network fare; Ramsay's made the big time with shows on network television (it was FOX, but it still counts). Toss in revenue from his 17 cookbooks and numerous endorsements, and Forbes estimates the chef earns $7.5 million per year. Of course, with various litigations pending against him - including a labor suit filed by his mother-in-law - and some of his restaurants losing money, Ramsay may need to keep his high-revenue, ill-tempered persona in the media for many more years. (Don't put your money on the table before getting a taste for analyzing this sector. Refer to Sinking Your Teeth Into Restaurant Stocks.)
Paula Deen says herself, "I never refer to myself as a chef. I'm a cook." But like Rachel Ray, Deen's influence on American cooks stems more from her straightforward and approachable "home cooking," than it does from any formal training. Of course, if dinner at your home wasn't flooded with butter, you and Deen may not share the same tastes. Deen is famous for making butter the star of her recipes. You can argue the damaging effects Deen's pro-butter campaign is having on an already-obese nation, but you can't argue that her full-flavor cooking is a hit. Deen has two shows on the Food Network, six cookbooks, an autobiography and a magazine, all of which combine to net her $4.5 million per year. Sex may be the simplest to sell, but Paula Deen is helping to prove that high-fat food is an attractive second.
This Austrian chef has spread his brand throughout America in thorough fashion. Starting with his first restaurant in Los Angeles in 1982, Puck has gone on to open 21 more fine-dining restaurants, as well as an array of casual eateries such as Wolfgang Puck Express and Wolfgang Puck Bistros. A sure sign you've made it in any business is when the branding of your name can make nearly anything marketable, as proven by Wolfgang's ability to use him name and likeness to sell indispensable tools of the trade such as toasters, coffee makers and salad spinners, and even prepackaged foods like pizza and soup. It's estimated that all of Puck's endeavors generate about $800 million, with Puck cutting himself a $16-million-per-year salary to oversee it all.
The Bottom Line
The exposure to new cooking styles and ingredients, as well as the money-saving appeal of cooking at home have helped to propel TV chefs into the ranks of Hollywood celebrities and rockstars. And in the same way that the most popular actors and musicians aren't necessarily the most talented, not every celebrity chef has achieved fame purely for his or her skills over the stove. The right "recipe" of charisma, skill and passion makes for an influential chef who can become a marketable brand that is the base for an empire of can't-miss restaurants, TV shows, books, cookware, gadgets, etc. (You may have heard of this method of evaluating currencies, but make sure you know the whole story. See The Big Mac Index: Food For Thought.)