You know things are getting weird when the person who comes in first on Forbes’ list of the ten top-earning celebrity chefs not only isn’t a chef, but also has just branched out into the dog food business. And the guy who finishes tenth recently taped a TV show where his “adventure” involved him pulling a kitchen shift at the restaurant where he used to work—a gig he’s pulled off maybe 2,000 times before. So make no mistake. The sky’s the limit for media-savvy culinarians today, and cooking skills and restaurant ownership are just part of what you need to succeed. TV exposure and the corporate sponsorships it leads to are where the big money can be found.
It’s been 10 years since Forbes first began to include chefs on its ranking of the 100 most powerful celebrities. That list’s methodology factors in things like Internet hits and magazine cover appearances as well as earnings. But this year Forbes came out with a supplemental chefs-only list, ranking them by income alone.
So who makes the most? At an estimated $16 million per year, never-had-a-restaurant “chef” Rachael Ray is the highest earner in the food industry, according to Forbes. Her total seems like a lot of money to the rest of us, but considering all she’s involved in, you’d think Ray would be raking in much more than she does. She’s got four Food Network shows, her syndicated talk show draws an average of 2.6 million viewers per day and her magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, attracts 1.5 million readers each month.
Ray’s most recent deal is a venture into the pet food arena. Her brand, Nutrish for Pets, is a dry dog food product whose big selling point is that it offers real meat and veggies and contains no junk or fillers. It’s part of a deal she struck with Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, which is in the business of “developing high-end super premium pet food products.” Nutrish comes in two versions: Beef and Brown Rice and Chicken and Veggies.
Say what you will about Ray’s skills as a chef, you can’t beat her talent for creating a personal brand. In 2006, it was rumored that Ray would open a burger restaurant in New York City that would feature 190 of her favorite burger recipes. It hasn’t materialized yet and, with the kind of money she’s hauling in from her other activities, what would be the point of opening it now? And with 190 different versions of the featured entrée on the menu, who’d want to work in the kitchen there? It sounds like guaranteed chaos every night.
But then again, maybe she could make a TV show out of that chaos. That’s what Anthony Bourdain just did. He finished 10th on Forbes list, with estimated earnings of $1.5 million per year, just about all of it coming from his Travel Channel series No Reservations. A journeyman chef who worked for others during most of his career, Bourdain ascended into the celebrity chef ranks thanks to his prodigious writing skills.
The No Reservations format calls for Bourdain to travel to exotic cities around the globe, eating and interacting with the locals as he goes. It’s the highest-rated show on the Travel Channel. But Bourdain broke the mold late last year when he taped a turn-back-the-clock show at Les Halles, a busy restaurant on Park Ave. South in New York City where he was executive chef for years. The idea was that Bourdain would handle the sauté station on a busy night, to see if he could still perform as a chef. He brought Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert along with him to up the celebrity factor, convincing Ripert to man the grill station.
Give Bourdain credit. He worked his old Tuesday double shift (prep starts at 8 a.m.; service runs from noon to midnight). You’ll have to watch the episode to see how it went, but word from the blogosphere indicates that 350 or so covers were cranked out with dispatch. In short, Bourdain’s cooking chops were, for at least one night, still intact.
But the basic idea of the show tells us a lot about how far removed from actual cooking celebrity chefs are. The premise here was that Bourdain and Ripert were now dilettantes in their chosen profession, and that doing the actual work that made them famous was a stunt worthy of an hour-long broadcast on national television.
Nice work if you can get it.
Who else made the Forbes list? Positions two through eight looked like this:
2. Wolfgang Puck, $16 million.
3. Gordon Ramsay, $7.5 million.
4. Nobu Matsuhisa, $5 million.
5. Alain Ducasse, $5 million.
6. Paula Deen, $4.5 million.
7. Mario Batali, $3 million,
8. Tom Colicchio, $2 million.
9. Bobby Flay, $1.5 million.
The importance of having a television presence jumps out from this list. Alain Ducasse and Nobu Matsuhisa are the only chefs on it that don’t do regular TV work. Wolfgang Puck doesn’t have a show per se, but his marathon pot-and-pan peddling sessions on the Home Shopping Network are more than enough to keep his name before the viewing public. Another key: The big earners have a smart partner with an entrepreneurial bent, an aggressive agent, or both.The final lesson: There are as many paths to becoming a celebrity chef as there are celebrity chefs. If you want to join the club, start getting your name out there now. When Rachel Ray is the top earner in the profession, it’s a sign that demand is outstripping supply.