It's probably difficult for you to imagine but there was a time when the chefs behind the world's most successful restaurants were underpaid and undervalued. In the 1980s, there was no such thing as the Food Network, the spice aisle was devoid of Emeril's Essence, and winners of high-stakes cooking competitions didn't appear in Carl's Jr. ads. Hell, in the '80s, Wolfgang Puck was making a paltry $5,000 for a MasterCard endorsement.
What, then, propelled the humble chef to the role of rock star? Before we even begin to talk about the Food Network and Iron Chef, we must talk about a successful music manager named Shep Gordon, a man whose interest in chefs — combined with his outsider's perspective — led to their eventual (and extreme) monetization.
"I was getting calls from very powerful people — the type of people who would pay $10,000 a seat for the Super Bowl — to get them into restaurants like Spago and Charlie Trotter's," recalls Gordon, who was friendly with chefs like Puck and Trotter in the '80s. "So in the back of my head, I knew there was unbelievable demand for these chefs' services."
Gordon also noticed that chefs weren't being paid shit. "All chefs knew was how to treat each other," explains Gordon, who made a name for himself managing artists including Alice Cooper, Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass. "They didn't know any other way. It was very much like my experience with black music artists in the Chitlin' Circuit in the '70s." Chefs were being exploited, and it made Gordon furious.
The first time Gordon saw the inside of the culinary world was when he asked his friend and unlikely mentor, chef Roger Vergé, if he could tag along during Vergé's guest-chef series at the Highlands Inn in Carmel. The hotel charged guests hundreds of dollars a head to eat Vergé's food, and it paid him nothing for his time. "The hotel room they gave Mr. Vergé was next to a garbage dump," Gordon recalls. "I ended up switching with him."
Gordon and Vergé went to have dinner at the hotel restaurant; Roy Yamaguchi was cooking. When they arrived, the maître d' said, "I'm very sorry, Mr. Gordon, we have a rule that the owners won't let the help eat in the restaurant. But I'll give you a free meal at the bar with Mr. Vergé" — to which Gordon replied, "Wait. You didn't pay him, you gave him the shittiest room in the place, you charged people hundreds of dollars to eat his meal, and he's the help? I thought the help gets paid."
That's when Gordon told Vergé that if he spoke to any of these people ever again without calling him first, he would personally choke Vergé to death. "I cannot see you treated like this," he told the chef. "I'd rather see you dead."
It wasn't just Vergé who was being treated like the help. Remembering the pre-Shep days of chefdom, Wolfgang Puck says, "People didn't respect what we do as much as they do today. And the most messed-up thing is, we didn't even realize it."
Gordon recalls that Puck asked him if he would consider him as a client, taking his calls as he was doing for Vergé. "Listen, Luther Vandross makes more in a night than any of you guys make in a year," Gordon replied. "You think I'm that out of my mind that I would do this?" But Puck didn't back down.
The year was 1992, and Gordon says Puck invited him to Spago for lunch. (While Gordon insists the lunch took place at Spago, Puck believes it was at a restaurant in San Francisco.) Puck also invited his chef friends, including Alice Waters, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, Lydia Shire, Nobu Matsuhisa and Paul Prudhomme. Gordon recalls what happened next: "They said, 'Would you help us out? We get fucked over just like Mr. Vergé.'?"
That same day, Gordon started an agency, taking on 46 clients including a relatively unknown chef from New Orleans named Emeril Lagasse. (Gordon met Lagasse one evening while dining at Commander's Palace and took an immediate liking to him after he gave Gordon complimentary Champagne and Cognac in to-go cups.) He would never be able to manage each chef individually but, with the power of everyone's voice, Gordon said he'd build a highway that they could all speed down.
Milliken, of Border Grill fame, recalls, "Shep thought we should have our name on the marquis no matter where we were cooking. If we were doing an event at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he made sure the first thing people recognized was that this food is being cooked by Susan [Feniger] and Mary Sue."
Puck elaborates, "Shep made us realize: If you do it for free, they won't respect you. If you tell them they have to pay you, then they will respect you."
Then came the second chef-world game-changer: food television. In 1993, the co-founder of CNN, Reese Schonfeld, started a cable network that ran food programing 24 hours a day. The Food Network negotiated with Gordon to get Lagasse's services for a very small fee in exchange for a series of commercials to advertise his Emeril's Essence spices. "He ended up making more on the spices than he ever would on the TV show," Gordon says.
Milliken and Feniger were asked to host their own series, which they called Too Hot Tamales. "Our producer on the show, Pat O'Gorman — who was actually Reese Schonfeld's wife — hated food," Milliken explains. "She weighed about 95 pounds and drank Diet Coke all day and smoked cigarettes. She had the kitchen in her apartment removed. Pat just turned the camera on and basically walked out of the room to smoke, which was brilliant, because we got free rein; we got to be ourselves. It was a stroke of genius on the part of Pat and her husband."
Fast-forward to 1999, when a Japanese cooking-competition show called Iron Chef was picked up by the Food Network. The show became a cult phenomenon and led to other breakthrough series such as Bravo's Top Chef. Michael Voltaggio, the winner of Top Chef season 6, became an instant celebrity after the show aired in 2009, eventually launching two successful restaurant concepts. "The minute I got off Top Chef, I was advised to work with a publicist," he recalls.
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Voltaggio has since participated in marketing campaigns for brands including Carl's Jr., Bose, Lamborghini, Samsung and Williams-Sonoma. At a Share Our Strength charity auction last year, Voltaggio's personal-chef sessions sold for $100,000 apiece.
Voltaggio, who began his kitchen career at 15 at a Holiday Inn in Frederick, Maryland, explains that the skill set required of a chef today is very different from what it was 15 years ago. "Before, you just had to focus on making sure the pots and pans were in place, the staff showed up, the food was there and you were ready to go at 6 p.m." Today, he says, getting out of your kitchen and showcasing your personal brand is what guarantees sustainability. "It's fortunately and unfortunately part of the business model now."
Voltaggio tries to be in his kitchen as much as possible but acknowledges that's not the case for everyone. Although he won't name names, Voltaggio says some celebrity chefs brag that they're never in their restaurants.
"They're not so much focusing on the chef part, they're focusing more on the celebrity part," he says. "And you need to make sure that the chef part is solid before you try to get to the celebrity part. Because eventually, somebody is going to pull the curtain back."