I’m a Celebrity Chef, 
Get Me Out of Here!

Anybody can follow a recipe, but few can create good food from scratch. Perhaps that’s why so many of us fawn over celebrity chefs the same way we do all creative geniuses, says Tony Eldred. But how does one become a celebrity chef? And is reaching the status really worth it?

Over the course of my career I have seen chefs achieve rockstar status. I have also dealt with a number who aspire to join their ranks. But what does a chef have to do to become a celebrity, and is it worth it?

Artists, actors, musicians and such are often revered for what they can do that us mere mortals cannot. How often have you watched a violinist and said, I wish I could do that?

Celebrity chefs seem to cater to the “I wish I could cook like them” brigade. Their fans hang off their every word, buy all their cookbooks, read every newspaper supplement, attend shopping-centre appearances and watch their countless cooking shows.

It might seem that culinary skill is the primary requisite to becoming a celebrity chef, the way musical talent is to becoming a famous violinist – sure, you need to be able to cook, but not all celebrity chefs are as gastronomically gifted as the last. Some are untrained like Nigella Lawson, some haven’t worked in a kitchen in decades, and some of the high profile chefs I have dealt with are, in my opinion, pretty ordinary cooks who get by replicating rather than innovating.

So if culinary skill alone won’t get you there, what does?

You show me a celebrity chef and I will show you someone standing behind them skilled in marketing and promotion. That is how they got themselves noticed by the media in the first place. They and their marketing team have cultivated journalists, radio and television personalities who are always looking for news or entertainment.

However, just putting yourself forward is seldom enough; you also have to be able to communicate.

Many good chefs dream about public acclaim, but are in denial about the reality of it. It’s one thing to be passionate about food, but it is an entirely different thing to be able to present yourself credibly and enthusiastically every single day. Have you ever noticed that most TV chefs are always, always ecstatic? That takes a hell of a lot of energy.

There is another route to celebrity, which is to own a number of high-profile restaurants, or even a sizeable group. These chefs are a small percentage of the total number, and have passed to entrepreneur. They will have a substantial enough human structure underneath them to have people ghost-write recipes and crank out constant press to hold them in the spotlight.

But is being a household name worth it? Remember, once people know your face, you’re subject to public scrutiny.

Unfortunately, we all suffer from tall-poppy syndrome and will eagerly pounce on any salacious detail of a celebrity chef’s life, personal or professional. Everything you or your team does will be watched, analysed, and talked about.

Especially if what you’re doing is illegal – be it malicious or careless.

More and more chefs and restaurateurs are being held to account for underpaying their staff, and quite a few of our celebrities have fallen hard as a result. And in this industry when the public has a negative perception of you, it’s all pretty much over. Your restaurants will eventually falter, your recipes will fade from magazines, and kiss those TV cooking competition show guest appearances goodbye.

So if you truly want to be a celebrity, you will need a range of skills, lots of financial support, a team of marketing experts, and a bit of luck. But be careful what you wish for.

This article was first published in foodservice's June 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.