Jan 282011

Career Goal: Top Chef Contestant/Media Star

If the culinary graduates or young cooks verging on sous chefs ten years ago had their eye on the five star wine country bijou or NY/SF Celebrity restaurant, an alarming number of today’s upcoming  cheflings have media ambition. Questions: “Can you get me on the Food Channel?”,  “Who do I speak to at Top Chef”?  Answers: A) Only if they happen to ask me to find you (which they have) and B) There is an annual competition and application process   Look it up on the Net. Join their Facebook pages.

Gordon Ramsay, a chef once known in Britain for bringing the refined manners of the soccer field to the world of fire, steel and boiling liquids, set the tone the second season of Hell’s Kitchen by proclaiming that a pretty girl in her early twenties was the image of the perfect chef, thus throwing oil on the burning ambition of thousands to make it to the top by shortcut. It is the only ten minutes of Hell’s kitchen I have ever watched, and my stomach went into a knot considering the consequences. My stomach was right. He changed the cook world forever.

Most if not all of the winners of Top Chef seem to have done quite well. The exposure it provides is invaluable not only for luring diners but for attracting investors, and the contestants are pre-selected for their backgrounds and abilities, so you would expect them to thrive.

Hell’s Kitchen winners  don’t appear to have the same success. A number of them are teaching rather than working in restaurants (not that teaching is undesirable, but it’s a curious thing).  Some are private chefs, some “consultants”. You can look all this up on the web.  That’s logical.  Unlike Top Chef contestants most were, of course, not seasoned chefs on entering the program, so it would be hard for them to take up their career again where they left off for the show – some however did – rather than try to get as much out of their time investment in the show while they can, and they appear to be doing well.

Of the rest of the graduates of both shows, some  appear to have new connections to and futures in media, quite a few from Hell’s Kitchen are working as private chefs for the Glitterati, and a few are missing in action or not meeting expectations. It’s a bit better across the board than one would expect from the general culinary population, with a few extraordinary opportunities thrown in.  A few of  course have shot themselves in the foot by showing their dark side to the world in general, and the introduction, “HI, I was on top chef,” is to most of the hiring public somewhat of a turnoff, but on the whole, if you have the opportunity and it suits you, why not? It could be fun, and it has definite financial benefits for some.

Actually  there are a few answers to “Why not”, but they are not conclusive. For one thing, being involved in the shows is time consuming and interrupts a normal culinary career. Your contract will restrict some of the things you can do or reveal afterwards, and you may have to interrupt your next positions to return for one or a series of episodes. For another, the temptation to let an interlude go to your head puts you in peril of being wooed by the wrong people or bungling opportunities you might have had later, but there’s  an app for that: Common Sense.

Most importantly, there aren’t nearly as many slots as there are aspiring cooks and chefs who are just biding their time in restaurants waiting to hit the pixeled screen. It’s kind of like sitting on a Hollywood soda fountain stool waiting to be discovered like Lana Turna.

The disconnect between the desire to be a television star and the industry of cooking is that it confuses two objectives.  Cooking, for which one attends culinary school, is a trade requiring endless skill and knowledge in addition to talent. Even though cooking schools correctly offer media training, they are not acting schools. You are extremely unlikely to get to television via the kitchen, and getting into media may only be a short term boon. In short, your odds at TV from cooking absolutely stink.  I think therefor, and I’ve been wrong often enough, that getting to media should be an option, not plan A.

Plan A should be becoming a great chef. I spoke with a number of the now top national television chefs before they had their shows, and their goal at that time was not to be in pictures. It was to be great chefs with great restaurants.   Being that (along with having a strong PR firm and much more)  is what got them their media exposure. Of course getting to the Food Network or on NPR requires much more, but the foundation of their success is their identity as chefs, which they continue to be. If you have an opportunity to speak to employees of chefs like Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck, you hear not hero worship but professional respect.

I have spoken to a number of thoroughly qualified chefs over the years who have quit their day jobs and were preparing pilots for their own shows. Not many are on television.  There are a few who have launched Web shows and thousands on You Tube, but does that equate to a culinary media career? That is not a redundant question. I don’t know.

What does this mean for you? I suppose whatever you want it to. Being good- no, excellent –  at what you do can get you to the media, so concentrate on being good before being famous. Your long term chances of being satisfied and successful are greater outside the media than in it, but somebody who puts it all on one number always wins the high stakes. So: If you want to get into media, pursue it. If media approaches you, listen and consider it. (I am at this point), but don’t start a culinary career with the long term intention of baiting and switching to become the next couch potato chef darling. If you want to be in pictures, go to acting school. It’s the easier path. Otherwise, carry on.

Some of the culinary schools are reportedly recruiting candidates with the lure of a career in culinary television. That is like a 4 year college promising a career as Senator. Some will certainly get there, but it’s a bizarre and unfulfillable claim. If a school dangles food shows in front of you, you, you’ll do well to keep looking.  (Media training, however, is a good idea, no matter where you take your education.)

Before you decide to embark on a television chef career, Google the contestants of the shows to see what they are doing now. Whatever you do, if you are a young culinary job hunter and think your future lies in bright lights, don’t tell anyone in an interview. It makes the hair on the back of their necks stand on end.

  One Response to “Career Goal: Top Chef Contestant”

Comments (1)
  1. We beat the NYT by a day on the what comes next issue. Here their take on media cheffing and the consequences, both good and bad.