For most of the 20th century, the dining public rarely knew the names of chefs, who toiled anonymously in the kitchen. Around two decades ago, all that changed: Chefs were recast as towering cultural figures — secular gods fit for worship not just by gourmands, but by the general public.
New York chefs like Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, Rocco DiSpirito, and Tom Colicchio became familiar characters, all seemingly overnight. It started with books and TV shows, but their influence soon led to billboards, branded products, and massive chains with branches around the world.
Over the last few years, though, the power of the celebrity in the restaurant realm has dramatically diminished. A glut of TV food shows and the ever-expanding ranks of chefs deemed “celebrities” have rendered the term almost obsolete. A slew of restaurants run by chefs who rose to prominence through TV have closed — from Harold Dieterle and Dale Talde to Cat Cora and Anne Burrell, who allegedly thought that her name alone would “put asses in seats.”
While there are still famous restaurant chefs and a multitude of up-and-coming talent — with a new roster far more diverse than the old pantheon — today’s biggest food celebrities are experts at home cooking, and the celebrity chef as we once knew him, full of swagger and reeking of self-regard, is a thing of the past.
The first modern food celebrities were James Beard and Julia Child, though neither quite fit the mold of the restaurant celebrity chef as we’ve come to know it. Beard mostly wrote cookbooks, despite his work on the original Four Seasons menu, while Child focused on cooking instruction and education.
However, Child was the first food figure to fully realize the power of TV. For decades, “food TV” largely followed in her early footsteps, consisting mainly of shows that showed viewers how to prepare pleasing (or cost-conscious) meals — waggishly referred to as “dump-and-stir” programming.
The early years of the Food Network were no exception, though some of its chefs found new levels of fame, like breakout star Emeril Lagasse. The New Orleans chef, who had a series of shows including Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril, was among the most prominent figures of the food world to capitalize on his expansive new fame with an empire of restaurants and beyond.
The late ’90s were a watershed in the arc of the celebrity chef, with the arrival of the Japanese competition show Iron Chef. The show’s nutty idolization of its “iron chefs” set the paradigm for the next two decades of reality food TV: It cast the limelight on multiple chefs at once, and pre-fabricated the narrative of each one as a culinary deity.
After the (second) American version took off in 2005, featuring chefs Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Cat Cora, and Masaharu Morimoto — and later, Alex Guarnaschelli, Michael Symon, and Geoffrey Zakarian — these personalities used the power of their newfound fame to build empires of their own, selling their names to a burgeoning number of products and dining establishments. Soon your local supermarket had row upon row of Italian sauces with Batali smiling down from the label, while Cora’s name was emblazoned on airport restaurants.
The show impacted food culture at large: It helped introduce the American public to cooking styles that some may not have been previously familiar with, including Scandinavian, African, Caribbean, and molecular gastronomy, and it habituated viewers to food shows in prime time. And significantly, none of the home viewers of Iron Chef could actually taste or smell the food (sometimes not even cooked by the chefs themselves), making the food’s appearance — and the chefs’ personalities — far more important than the actual food. This reality, that the taste of the food didn’t matter to the viewers, was an innovation that bled into the current Instagram era.
But no show created more celebrity chefs than Top Chef, which first aired on Bravo in 2006 and established Tom Colicchio and co-host Padma Lakshmi as stars. It was quite literally in the business of manufacturing celebrity chefs. In the first 12 seasons, every winner went on to some form of food world success, most as chefs at their own restaurants or television personalities in their own right.
One particular coterie would go on to leverage their fame on the show into ultra-desirable gigs in New York City. The city’s dining scene soon became flush with restaurants from people who boasted Top Chef credentials: Harold Dieterle, Dale Talde, Leah Cohen, Hung Huynh, Ilan Hall, Sam Talbot, Angelo Sosa, and many, many others. Local food media published reports on their progress post-Top Chef, generally treating them as rising stars, even as the paths of their restaurants were sometimes bumpy and reviews decidedly mixed.
Soon, the personalities took on so much cultural capital that it didn’t even matter if the chef dabbled in food at all. Some could entirely abandon restaurants and still maintain their fame status, like the handsome and personable Rocco DiSpirito. The well-regarded chef of Union Pacific left restaurants after starring in reality show The Restaurant (2003) and went on to appear on numerous talk shows, offer diet advice, and even break into Dancing With the Stars.
Eventually, interest in chefs as singular geniuses of craft moved beyond TV. In the past, when NYC fine dining restaurants charged less exuberant prices, diners liked food but didn’t make a fetish of it. By the early 2010s, shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef had trained diners to shower adulation upon chefs — they became eager to learn the names and backstories of all restaurant chefs, even the ones without television credits. People like Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Humm, Michael White, April Bloomfield, and David Chang became well-known entities in the city, all without the benefit of major screen time.
The field of TV star chefs has become hopelessly thronged over the last several years. Now in its 17th season, Top Chef and its spinoffs alone have anointed dozens of cheflebrities who either won a season or were runners-up. There’s also a myriad of other cooking shows, centered on cupcakes, grocery shopping, or saving failing restaurants with lots of yelling, not to mention Chopped. The reality show food format has become so stale that it has engendered self-parodies such as Worst Cooks in America, hosted by Anne Burrell and Tyler Florence, themselves already well on the way to chef hackdom (Burrell once accused Guy Fieri of stealing her hairstyle).
The crowded scene has diluted the influence of individual TV chefs, and each chef has less and less of the coveted name recognition that previously propelled restaurant empires. In New York, Top Chef runner-up Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen shuttered after a rocky year in the Columbia Street Waterfront District, while Cat Cora — who traced her fame to Iron Chef America — flopped ignominiously at Fatbird in the Meatpacking District. Top Chef’s first winner Harold Dieterle, whose empire included four restaurants in the wake of the show, had none of his own by 2020, instead acting as a consultant at a single Williamsburg restaurant. Dale Talde, another early Top Chef favorite, went from having eight restaurants in the New York area and Miami to just one, in Westchester. Guy Fieri, though not a chef, also saw his poorly received Times Square restaurant close. The few Top Chef restaurants that remain, like Angelo Sosa’s Añejo and Leah Cohen’s Pig & Khao, have had to find their own niches.
At the same time, in the wake of #MeToo, which has called attention not only to the reprehensible behavior of specific individuals, but also to the broader problems of the culture that venerated them, the allure of the lascivious, swaggering chef has diminished. As New Yorker scribe (and former Eater editor) Helen Rosner wrote of Mario Batali, once the ne plus ultra of the modern celebrity chef, “disregard for boundaries has in the past been a foundation of his mythology, a thing not to recoil from but to admire; in the context of the current #MeToo movement, his behavior is just repugnant.” Or as writer Regina Schrambling succinctly demanded in Charlotte Druckman’s book Women on Food, “Kill the celebrity chef.”
In less repugnant ways, food TV has also eaten its own head. Today, diners are now more deeply engaged with food, and in turn, name recognition alone is no longer enough to keep a restaurant alive. Ultimately, many of the Top Cheftestant restaurants failed for the reason most restaurants fail: They simply weren’t good enough. Celebrity also does little to fend off the rising costs of doing business in New York. Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain closed in 2018 because renovations would cost too much; he now owns a single NYC restaurant.
The TV audience’s inability to actually taste the food for themselves laid another seed of the celebrity chef’s undoing. As restaurants have become more expensive and unsatisfying fast-casual cafes the rule rather than the exception, the spotlight has shifted from eating in restaurants to just looking at food on social media. This has resulted in more participation by consumers in cooking and entertaining, led by figures like Alison Roman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the YouTube stars of Bon Appétit. Many food enthusiasts are more interested in recreating viral recipes than they are visiting restaurants. As in the days of Julia Child, the home cooks may be poised to be the new celebrity chefs.
Still, some celebrity chefs have maintained their influence and risen above the cooking contest fray — though it’s required a level of reinvention, and largely demanded continued success of the restaurants themselves. Tom Colicchio, whose Craft and Temple Court have been well-reviewed in recent years, developed a penchant for politics, while José Andrés has steered clear of reality TV in favor of building a hands-on restaurant empire that now exceeds 30 establishments and doing humanitarian work in areas like disaster relief and immigration reform. In the process, he’s established himself as one of the most respected humanitarians of the early 21st century.
David Chang is another figure who has generally avoided the siren call of reality TV. He built up his Momofuku restaurants into a global hit, developing them from his single stripped-down Noodle Bar in the East Village. He’s since pivoted into a media mogul focused on nonfiction television like the Netflix documentary series Ugly Delicious that has more in common with the cultural exploration work of Anthony Bourdain than Top Chef. Though Chang has said that the show bumped business at the restaurants, Momofuku had a strong food world reputation long before his TV show and continues to have one.
Perhaps more notably, it’s now somewhat déclassé for empire builders to take full credit for all the operations at their many restaurants. Chang has been firm about each Momofuku restaurant being the responsibility of the team there, while Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup regularly pushes forward the names of its employees when debuting a new restaurant.
Ultimately, the end of the celebrity chef as envisioned by reality TV is a good thing. Hero worship has declined, with many diners taking on a more nuanced view of the restaurants they love. More chefs can now rise based on the merits of their cooking and their prowess in maintaining businesses that are safe and pleasant workplaces. The era of restaurants solely based on frantic television contests — where the mere appearance of a finished dish can lead to success, and a sassy haircut counts for more than one’s people skills — is over.
Robert Sietsema is Eater NY’s senior critic.