The Rise of the Celebrity Chefpreneur

Chris Latham

Julia Child was the first celebrity chef, known for her cookbooks and cooking show. Today, such success stories as Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and Ina Garten join the ranks of chefs who have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom cooking up multimedia empires.

A black and white photo of a chef plating a dish in the kitchen of a restaurant.

Throughout history, culinary wizardry has always been about preparing delicious meals that stimulate the senses and honor the cultures from which they originated. Long before the internet or even television, the best chefs made names for themselves by cooking at highly coveted restaurants. Some became quite wealthy, but they were not exactly big business.

Today, a savvy few larger-than-life personalities have taken advantage of our multimedia age to become true celebrity chef entrepreneurs, or “chefpreneurs.” For these mavericks, cooking is the springboard to everything from television shows and best-selling books to home goods branding deals and restaurant chains. Just look at the numbers.

Last year The Food Network, a cable channel that relies heavily on chefpreneurs, boasted an average audience of over 1 million viewers nightly and made operating revenues of $932.6 million. Food Network currently has almost 5 million followers on Twitter and more than 23 million likes on Facebook. Its most popular YouTube video, “How to Poach an Egg: Alton Brown Shows You How,” has over 1 million views.

Chefpreneurs tend to be more innovative for their audience.

In 2016, the top 10 new cookbooks sold more than 1.8 million print copies. The city of Las Vegas alone is home to at least 40 celebrity chef restaurants. The kitchen and cookware stores industry, which thrives on chefpreneur branding, generated $15 billion in revenues and employed nearly 86,000 people in 2015.

Arguably the earliest chefpreneur on record was the first-century Roman, Marcus Gavius Apicius, who wrote a popular cookbook. But if there is a founder of the modern-day trend, it has to be Julia Child.

Born in 1912 in Pasadena, Calif., she learned French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu. Child co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” a 1961 book that has since sold over 4 million copies. Two years later she starred in her first TV series, “The French Chef.” She went on to host seven more TV series and write 16 more books. Child also founded the American Institute of Food & Wine as well as the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

Thanks to her trailblazing success, dozens of diverse celebrity chefpreneurs are now showing America – and the world – their unique recipes for mixing creative passion and business acumen. These days, the public persona is a more crucial ingredient than ever.

Television and the internet offer viewers nearly limitless choices about the types of cooking shows they can watch. Whereas in the past, instructional programs were the norm, nowadays those are more common on YouTube than primetime television. Chefpreneurs tend to be more innovative for their audience.

Food-oriented talk shows with an assortment of other celebrity guests have become quite popular. So has the concept of the “roaming gourmand,” where the host travels to far flung or exotic locales to taste hidden gems. Then there are the elimination challenges, where gourmet gladiators cook for the win.

To be sure, other chefpreneurs have launched business empires by focusing less on television and more on restaurants.

For them, cooking is capitalism.

For instance Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, named after its chef-to-the-stars founder, is a privately held company whose label appears on casual dining franchises, cooking utensils, packaged foods, books and more. Of course, Puck himself has appeared countless times as a guest on top-rated talk shows. Think about it: A man who started out by deciding how to prepare a meal now decides how to run a global organization.

One trait these pioneers share is the ability to see the big picture while wearing all their different hats. Similar to the long-term growth strategies of America’s most successful enterprises, great chefpreneurs recognize opportunities that may take them out of their initial comfort zone, while remaining true to their core competency. For them, cooking is capitalism.

Chefpreneur Profiles

Rachael Ray
Host of “The Rachael Ray Show,” which won three Emmy awards and is in its 11th season. She has hosted three other TV shows, published 27 books, and her monthly magazine “Rachael Ray Every Day” reaches 5 million readers. Her product lines include the Rachael Ray Home line of furnishings, Rachael Ray cookware and tabletop, and Rachael Ray Nutrish pet food.

Emeril Lagasse
New Orleans favorite has hosted eight TV shows and published 19 cookbooks. His Emeril’s Restaurants group runs 14 dining establishments nationwide. The Emeril’s food product line sells dozens of sauces, condiments and seasonings. The Emeril Store, located in New Orleans and online, also offers an apparel line of chef coats, T-shirts, footwear and baseball caps.

Bethenny Frankel
Transitioned from a natural food chef into a reality TV star and talk show host. She launched the SkinnyGirl cocktail company, offering beverages and snacks, then promptly sold it to Fortune Brands’ Beam Global Spirits & Wine – reportedly for $100 million. Frankel maintains name rights to SkinnyGirl, expanding it into deli meats, protein bars and shakes, popcorn, diet books and more. The best-selling author also has a Bethenny brand of products include shirts, coffee mugs and accessories.

Bobby Flay
Runs four restaurants and the Bobby’s Burger Palace, which has 17 locations nationwide and is preparing for an initial public offering. His Bobby Flay Collection includes sauces and spice rubs, cookbooks, and diningware available at Kohl’s department stores. The four-time Emmy winner stars on “Bobby Flay’s BBQ Addiction,” “Brunch @ Bobby’s,” “Food Network Star” and “Iron Chef America.”

Ina Garten
Her Barefoot Contessa brand sells cookware, tableware, ingredients and equipment. She has published 10 books with over 10 million copies in print. The three-time Emmy winner has hosted “Barefoot Contessa,” “Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics” and “Cook Like A Pro.” She formerly worked for the White House Office of Management and Budget on nuclear energy issues.

Tom Colicchio
Owner of Crafted Hospitality, which runs premier fine dining establishments in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami Beach. He also won an Emmy for his highly rated “Top Chef” TV show, now in its 14th season, has published three books, founded the non-profit Food Policy Action, and served as executive producer on the documentary “A Place at the Table.”