For a while now I've been carrying on about the celebrity chef phenomenon — both the good and the bad that come with the elevated status celebrity brings. What's most disturbing is the misguided belief among many young kids who think they can enter the cooking arena and become the next Emeril Lagasse. The chances of that happening are only slightly better than that of a kid hoping to escape his inner city blues by winning an NBA contract.
With that said, the Emeril Lagasses of this profession have changed the rules of the game. No longer hidden in the dark recesses of the kitchen, chefs are now admired more by the public than ever before. And, in a growing number of cases, their celebrity is on the same level as many Hollywood movie stars. The aforementioned Chef Lagasse is a prime example. His reputation with the public is so valuable that Martha Stewart late last month bought a large chunk of the brand known as Emeril Lagasse.
Lagasse will maintain his 11-restaurant empire, but for a cool $50 million he sold off the rights to his television programming (including episodes of The Essence of Emeril), his 12 cookbooks, his website (emerils.com), his licensed kitchen products and his food products (spices, sauces and more).
“Emeril brings talent, energy and legions of fans to the Martha Stewart family, along with a powerful brand and an attractive, profitable business franchise,” said Susan Lyne, president and c.e.o. of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
If Lagasse's name was removed from that quote you'd swear she was talking about some superstar from the corporate world. But the truth is, he and an upper echelon of chefs are now on par with many top business executives and celebrities who pull in serious money. In fact, last year Lagasse appeared on Forbes' list of the Top 100 powerful money-making celebrities. The list is compiled by determining a celebrity's pay plus popularity on the web, in the press and on television. Lagasse was No. 87 on the list, the highest ranking chef. He made $9 million last year. Right behind him was Wolfgang Puck at No. 88. Two other chefs appeared on the list: Paula Deen, who ranked 99th, and Bobby Flay, who just made the cut at 100.
To a large extent, you can thank Lagasse for helping clear the way to Forbes' list with a style that demolished the image of chefs as stuffy French guys in goofy, tall white hats. He's taken a lot of heat for his “BAM!” routine, but you can bet there are a lot of boys out there who watched Lagasse and said, “Hey, this chef thing may be a cool way to go.”
What those young kids haven't seen is how he worked his ass off to get where he is today. He put the show in the business and he deserves every dollar he gets. But kids who get into this business with the idea of making millions … well, they might as well take a shot at the NBA.