New York Magazine: 20 Biggest Chef Empires

Just what we needed in the middle of an economic downturn – another list of the biggest and richest chefs.

The goal of New York Magazine‘s “The Twenty Biggest Chef Empires” is to answer the question: “Which chef has his hand in the most pots around the globe?” (Notice the gender bias: “his”?)

While their list certainly beats the dwindling number of chefs on “Forbes’ Celebrity 100” (last count down, to just two chefs), it is really more a convenient count of what these chefs own. It does not attempt to show net worth or wealth (or debt), like the Forbes list: it simply catalogs the accumulation of restaurants, TV shows, cookbooks, and “miscellaneous” such as flavor sprays (David Burke) or recipes for an online dating site (Todd English).

Before the current “economic downturn,” many Americans seemed to have started valuing gross assets over net like this — but the rest of us seemed to have learned what net value really means when artificially high property values plummeted, eventually bringing down mighty Lehman Brothers and bringing on the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Economic Downturn, from think BIG Magazine

Apparently, New York Magazine did not learn this lesson. Rather than even attempt to value their chefs’ assets by current market value (after all, such valuation takes real research — more than just counting up what you can find on the Internet), they valued according to their own arbitrarily self-created formula:

4 points = Restaurant
3 Points = Television
2 Points = Cookbooks
1 Point = Miscellaneous

How do they justify this point system? “We consider operating restaurants to be more important to a chef’s empire than his ancillary product deals.”


Maybe New York Magazine should have asked the chefs about that!

Are restaurants really of greater value to an empire-building celebrity chef then all other activities?

The article doesn’t say — nor does it clarify what it means by “value”: sheer monetary value or publicity power?

New York Magazine As anyone in the food business knows, all restaurant deals are not created equal. Some are consulting contracts. Others are owned with partners. Still others are lease deals. Just having the largest number of restaurants can be very misleading. The varying nature of ownership deals means they will vary in the money they generate for the chef.

Following their logic, who else could be their No. 1 chef but hello!-I’m-going-bankrupt Gordon Ramsay!

To add to the insanity, article also states that too many restaurants can be detrimental — in which case, why did they pick Gordon Ramsay…?

And who on staff there thinks that cookbooks are valuable? Sure, everyone once in a blue moon, a chef (and/or co-author) cranks out a book that either sells well (Mario Batali‘s Molto Mario), looks beautiful (Thomas Keller‘s The French Laundry Cookbook), or services real cooking needs (Tom Colicchio‘s Think Like a Chef). Other than these, forget it: cookbooks do not add to the bottom line in most cases. At best, most cookbooks are marketing tools — but of course the New York Magazine articles does not say whether it considers cookbooks in terms of dollars earned or marketing potential.

Super Chef has some experience with lists and calculating wealth (see the book Super Chef and the Celebrity Chefs section of the Forbes annual Celebrity 100 issue, 1999-2001). We have seen too many chefs over-expand to become over-burdened by debt and commitment. In such cases, too many restaurants are often a big liability. Since marketing activities like consulting on products, or endorsing products do not require additional debt, chefs that focus on “miscellaneous” growth, as long as they have a few high-profile restaurants, will probably see a better bottom line.

New York Magazine proves the point themselves with Emeril Lagasse. They give him 12 points for (3) restaurants, 3 points for (1) TV show, 14 points for (7) Cookbooks — but 25 points for (25) Miscellaneous. That leads them to rank him as only No. 7 biggest chef. In contrast, they rank Joel Robuchon No. 4 on their list because he scores 19 with (?) Restaurants, 2 (with (0) TV Shows, 16 with (8) Cookbooks, and 1 with (1) Miscellaneous. If they value restaurants 4 points, how did they arrive at “19”? And how did they award “2” points when TV shows are worth 3 in their system — and Robuchon has none?

As for gender, the article makes no comment, although they list 19 male chefs and only one (1) female. (Lidia Bastianich). Were non-chefs food personalities like Rachael Ray and Paula Deen considered or not? We don’t know: the magazine does not even define what they mean by “chef.”

In response to their closing line: “Who’s the king of all chefs, and who’s a merchandiser?” Super Chef replies, “We certainly don’t know from you.”

Previous articles:
2009 Forbes Celebrity 100: 2 Chefs
Forbes: Women Are Heating Up the Restaurant World
Forbes Celebrity Chefs 2007: Food Network Heaven
Forbes Tastemakers 2
Are British Super Chefs Richer
Forbes Celebrity 100 Chefs 2006: Cute?
Juliette Rossant: Forbes Tastemakers
Celebrity Chefs from 2005 Forbes Celebrity Chef 100
Latest Forbes Celebrity Chef Column

2 comments on “New York Magazine: 20 Biggest Chef Empires
  1. anonymous says:

    Agreed that it’s hard to see how a single restaurant is more “valuable” from a marketing or brand-building standpoint than a nationally televised show. Clearly not a “valuation”-driven analysis in the traditional sense of the word, or at least not a properly executed one if that was the intent.

    To to clarify the issues raised in your 3rd-to-last paragraph – the numbers indicated on NY Mag’s category-by-category list (19 under “Restaurants” for Robuchon, 14 under “Cookbooks” for Lagasse) are the actual number of items in the category, i.e. Robuchon has 19 restaurants and Lagasse has 14 cookbooks. The math to get to the total number of points on the right is not broken out. For instance, Robuchon actually received 86 points (19 x 4) for his restaurants.

    Separately, while there’s obviously some ambiguity to the definition of “chef”, one might assume that a the criteria include a certain level of classical training and/or a rise to relative fame which started through restaurant ownership/operation, rather than television exposure. I agree the criteria should be more clearly spelled out, but I also do not have an issue drawing a line (even a vague one) between personalities such as Rachel Ray or Guy Fieri and the group of largely Michelin-starred chefs on the list.

    I also don’t see much validity in the implication of sexism. Once chefs such as Anita Lo or Michelle Bernstein opens a few more restaurants, one can only assume they will be on the list.

  2. marian says:

    Todd English certainly is not qualified as SUPER CHEF in my mind after he did such a heinous thing to his wife-to be.
    This jerk dumped his wife Olivia and their three kids (all under 10 year old) after she helped him to started his restaruant business and he later engaged 3 times in the next 10 years.
    He should belong to SUPER JERK group.

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