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Published: Tuesday, 6/26/2012

Celebrity chefs are in big demand

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Remember when chefs were just chefs?

They would toil away in a restaurant kitchen, out of sight of the diners and certainly out of mind. They were underpaid and under-appreciated. The patrons did not care who was making their food, all that interested them was the quality. If it was good, they came back. If it was not, they didn’t.

But then came the advent of celebrity chefs, and then the onslaught.

Julia Child, who wasn’t really a chef, Jacques Pepin, and Graham Kerr were the first. In the 1980s, Paul Prudhomme became famous as he popularized Cajun cuisine. For a while, it seemed as if you couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing him.

And that was before television networks devoted entirely to cooking. Folks started watching that, and a whole class of people who were just chefs soon became … stars.

Here is how crazy it has become: Say your corporation wants a celebrity to appear at your annual retreat, or maybe for the big Christmas party. Perhaps you belong to an association that is looking for a big name to draw members to the closing night of your convention. Everybody loves Paula Deen, right?

She will come talk to your meeting for a minimum of $100,000 to $150,000.

If you’re looking for a more manly vibe, you can shell out the same amount for Bobby Flay. Ditto Emeril Lagasse.

These people are chefs, they aren’t world leaders (Al Gore also charges a minimum of $100,000 to $150,000; former president and prime minister of France Jacques Chirac is a steal at $80,000 to $100,000). What they are good at is chopping things into the exact same size — a difficult feat that takes a tremendous amount of practice, true — and they are able to put ingredients together with the same precise results thousands and thousands of times.

But they didn’t discover the double helix structure of DNA. They never cured polio.

At best, they are talented at combining ingredients to create pleasant flavors. Beyond that, and perhaps more important, they are photogenic and come across on television as personable. That’s what makes them celebrities.

Take the case of Spike Mendelsohn. Dude is 31. He is chef and owner of two restaurants in Washington. One is a pizza joint (clever name, We the Pizza) and the other is a hamburger joint. He makes hamburgers, fries, iceberg-lettuce salads, and milk shakes. If you want him to speak at your event, it will cost you a minimum of $15,000-$25,000.

Mr. Mendelsohn is a celebrity chef commanding a five-figure speaker’s fee because he finished behind the two runner-ups to the winner on a television cooking contest four years ago. But he looked good and some people thought he was cute, and it couldn’t have hurt that his name was Spike.

Rachael Ray brings in a minimum of $60,000 to $80,000, and although she is not a chef (she does not run a kitchen in a restaurant) she also has a popular talk show, which might account for the fee. Rick Bayless, who has never had a television show of his own but is frequently seen on television cooking his own style of Mexican food, brings in $50,000 to $75,000. The energetic Wolfgang Puck commands $60,000 to $80,000.

I have interviewed Mr. Puck and attended a cooking demonstration by Mr. Bayless, and was impressed by their passion, their knowledge, and their spirit. And I have eaten at restaurants owned by each of them. And frankly, maybe they should spend a little more time cooking and a little less time being celebrities.

And what of Paul Prudhomme, the man who helped start it all?

Looking much slimmer now than he was at the height of his fame, Mr. Prudhomme can also be hired out for an event. His fee is just $15,000 to $25,000.

So maybe Paula Deen and Bobby Flay are simply getting it while they can. Celebrity is fleeting.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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