Say what you want about hokey old PBS, but on its airwaves began one of the most remarkable socio-entrepreneurial conjurings since the days of Barnum: the transformation of cooks into celebrities.
Like a soufflé, it grew quietly. In 1963, Julia Child—an American diplomat’s wife who managed to get into Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu—began shooting a local how-to cooking show, The French Chef, for Boston’s WGBH. The zest with which the big lady with the high-pitched warble tore the bones out of chickens and dumped brandy onto her crepes to set them ablaze knocked housewives back on their heels. Soon, the show went national. By 1973, a white-bearded former minister named Jeff Smith began his own cooking show out of Tacoma, Wash.’s KTPS-TV called The Frugal Gourmet. Before long, that show went national too.
The programs had a message in common, a credo that was anathema for the postwar generations of Americans raised on canned string beans and who regarded chefs as greasy alcoholic tradesmen in aprons. Cooking could be adventurous and fun, a way to impress your friends. It could even be…cool.
Meanwhile, something else was going on. When Smith would recommend a type of garlic press, stores sold out of them. Hmmm.
Watching all this from afar was CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld, who in 1993 launched the TV Food Network. Its inaugural lineup featured hitherto-unknown men in whites including Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. For good measure, the channel (which later dropped the “TV” prefix) aired some old episodes of Julia too.
Americans only realized it after the fact, but the Food Network had touched a match to those brandied crepes. By the mid ’90s, the culture beheld a merry band of millionaire chefs who could walk the red carpet alongside any Hollywood star. In time, this coterie would come to include figures who’d blazed their own paths, like Wolfgang Puck, who fed Los Angeles’ elite his pizzas topped with smoked salmon and caviar.
But what’s most remarkable about the rise of America’s famous foodies is that all their recipes share the same final ingredient—branding. With fame doth come the product endorsement (cookbooks, sauces, saucepots, and aprons). The torrent of branded items multiplied the fortunes of a handful of superstar cooks further than restaurant checks ever could, and the crowned heads of today’s culinary elite now preside over whole empires. Here’s a peek under the toques of six of them.
CHEF ILLUSTRATIONS: JOEL KIMMEL; FOOD ILLUSTRATIONS: MATTHEW HOLLINGS; PRODUCT DIAGRAMS: RICARDO SANTOS; MAP INFOGRAPHIC: NICHOLAS BLECHMAN