How have star chefs built commercial empires?
By juggling more than just pots.
Seems unthinkable, but chefs used to be ordinary working stiffs–greasy guys in funny hats who knew their place (and knew it was beside a stove). That changed with the advent of Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer and the rest of today’s kick line of celebrity cooks–each a commercial force and a brand, as important to the restaurant business as Gable and Garbo ever were to Hollywood.
Alongside Tiger Woods and J. K. Rowling on last year’s Forbes Celebrity 100 list were Alain Ducasse, Puck and Emeril Lagasse. Emeril, who scored his own sitcom on NBC (it failed), now appears in Crest commercials. Their power reaches far beyond product endorsements. Celebrity chefs have turned Las Vegas, for example, into a food oasis. Try opening a luxury hotel on the Strip without an anchor restaurant presided over by a star.
How cooks became gods is told in Juliette Rossant’s new book, Super Chef: The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires. Rossant, a former FORBES reporter, tracks the rise of six, explaining how each built an empire. Not all of them grew smoothly. “This is a trial-and-error thing. There’s no 101 course on how to expand a restaurant business,” says Todd English. He should know. After trying to launch 11 restaurants and two TV series in less than four years, his empire imploded, thanks to a stinging review of his new eatery Olives New York in the New York Times, health violations and lawsuits from his partner and an investor.
While today’s chef seeks wealth by playing to the masses, his predecessor got rich catering to kings. He now comes back to life in Ian Kelly’s new biography, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef.
Carême, born in 1783 and abandoned at the age of 10, grew up in a seedy slum in Paris. His rise to stardom began after the Revolution, when a lawyer named Grimod de la Reynière parlayed his own dining adventures into the Almanach des Gourmands. The Zagat of its day, it whet appetites for the sort of cooking at which Carême excelled.
Every celebrity chef has signature dishes. Carême’s were dazzling confections, or extraordinaires. These were superstructures of sweets. Using salt-pastry, nougat, spun sugar and marzipan, he created Athenian ruins with fallen columns, ships in full sail, Roman temples and Chinese pagodas, writes Kelly. Passersby could peer into his storefront patisserie on the rue de la Paix to watch these marvels being made.
One who took notice was Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, who viewed the culinary art as crucial in the theater of diplomacy. At Talleyrand’s château just outside Paris, Carême began cooking for an average of 150 foreign visitors a week.
Like superchefs today, Carême produced his own line of cookbooks. The first, published in 1815, was a smash. Two 400-page volumes laid out recipes for babas and madeleines, fruit jellies and flans. The very incongruity of his name, which in French means “Lenten fast,” probably helped sales.
After a stint with Louis XVIII, he got a plum offer from George, Prince of Wales. The Prince Regent, an unpopular spendthrift, gave Carême a staggering salary, equivalent to $222,000 in today’s dollars. The prince held his banquets on a 200-foot-long table, the longest in London. A gurgling stream stocked with goldfish traversed its length, adorned with moss and flowers.
The world’s highest-paid cook later went to work for the Romanovs. At Peterhof Palace the czar had a giant pulley system that raised the dinner table from the kitchen into the dining room, like a massive dumbwaiter.
Carême died 171 years ago, but remains a presence in the kitchens of today’s Pucks and Palmers. The toque was his invention. Chefs’ hats of the 19th century were floppy–unappetizingly similar to ones worn by physicians. Carême stiffened his with cardboard so it would stand upright, and the look immediately caught on. He also invented the first taxonomy of sauces, dividing them into four styles: velouté, béchamel, espagnole and allemande.
That’s the same classification used today in the all-too-numerous Francocentric cooking schools. Superchef Tom Colicchio, one of Rossant’s six, isn’t at all pleased. New chefs are preoccupied with hosting TV shows and getting rich, he grouses. Never before in culinary history has a pot so defamed a kettle.