Are Chef Brands Inherently Evil?

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Thomas Keller, Inc.; Todd English Enterprises; Tom Colicchio Industries. Celebrity chefs have become branded commodities. They open restaurants all over the world, endorse everything from blenders to stemware, and put their names on boxes of frozen food.

The question serious eaters want to know: Are these chef-brands a good thing? Where are all these chef brands taking our food culture?

In a Diner's Journal blog entry a couple of weeks ago, Frank Bruni pondered some of these questions as he sat in New York's Bouchon Bakery, owned by Thomas Keller:

The sandwiches looked good. So did the muffins. But are they really reflections of Mr. Keller’s culinary devotion and passion? Are they bids for art or lucre?

If the latter, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just pointing out that it’s a motivation to which apparently few—if any—of even the proudest and most principled chefs are immune.

Bruni mused on this issue because it was raised in a Bloomberg News story.

Ah, so many good questions worth pondering, so little time.

Celebrity chefs are brands, and though that fact may rub some of us the wrong way because a.) we have some romantic notion that every chef should be like Andre Soltner of New York's Lutèce, who had one restaurant that he and his wife lived above, and b.) chefs and bakers have made pronouncements that suggest they are going to resist the siren call of fortune resulting from fame in the name of their art or craft. I discount those claims, which are the culinary equivalent of a young politician disavowing any interest in the presidency. Bloomberg News played up this angle with its lede:

Two years after opening an unassuming fieldstone restaurant named the French Laundry in Yountville, California, Thomas Keller dismissed the idea of opening another venue. "If this is Thomas Keller's cuisine," he told the New York Times in 1996, as the restaurant was beginning to garner national attention, "how can you have it in two places?"

Chefs aren't immune to ambition, fortune, and fame. What's the big news here? Are any of us? The question is what these chefs are willing to put their names on, and how many compromises are they willing to make in doing so? Celebrity chefs want to make as much money as they can because they feel like athletes in that their window of opportunity may be small. When celebrity chefs are not on TV anymore or if they lose a star or have to close a restaurant or two, their opportunities will shrink considerably.

What this means is not necessarily bad. When they were "just" chefs with one restaurant or two, we got to judge them by the quality of the food coming out of their kitchens. We were somehow comforted by the fact that their hands were involved in the making of our food.

Now that they are brands with far-flung enterprises all over the world we need to judge them by a different set of criteria. What are their brand attributes, that is, what do they stand for, and how well do they execute against those principles? How effective are they as managers and entrepreneurs? And most importantly: Do they know what delicious is no matter what food they're tackling? Do they have what it takes to hire and inspire talented people to execute their food well or even improve upon it?

So in Keller's case, to answer Bruni's question, it may not matter if his muffins are bids for art or lucre if they're delicious. For the record I would say that the muffins are not the most delicious items at Bouchon Bakery. But those pesto croissants, those doughnuts on weekends, those chocolate bouchons, and, yes, Bruni's beloved Nutter Butters, are all seriously delicious. And what we now will judge Keller on is if those same items are delicious in any new Bouchon Bakeries he opens. If the result of Keller opening a burger place is more great burgers, all of us burger lovers can and should rejoice. The real question is how smartly and how well these chefs expand their businesses.

Some chefs are going to be able to pull the branding thing off, and some won't. And there will be hits or misses by each chef we can think of. Take Tom Colicchio of Top Chef. His sandwich chain, 'wichcraft, is pretty good, though I haven't tried the one in San Francisco. But I still haven't forgiven him for serving an egg sandwich there with an egg not made on 'witchcraft's premises. But I seem to be the only one complaining about the egg. When Colicchio opened a branch of Craftsteak in his hometown of New York, it wasn't very good to start with. I haven't been back recently, but Bruni re-reviewed it and said the food had improved markedly. Colicchio is learning what it means to be a brand, namely that eaters (and critics) associate certain attributes to your brand, and if you let them down, they will let you know it. He's apparently a pretty quick study, if Irene Virbila's rave review in the Los Angeles Times of the newly opened Craft in Los Angeles is any indication.

Todd English, a chef I have known and admired for a long time, has a more mixed record when it comes to branding. So many restaurants have opened (and a few have closed) with his name attached to them that I wonder how he could possibly control the quality at all of them. But ultimately the marketplace will dictate how English is faring.

Bruni properly points out that certain chefs have made the decision not to become brands. He cites Gotham Bar and Grill's Alfred Portale, a terrifically talented and influential New York–based chef. While it is true that Portale only has one restaurant, he has in the past made unsuccessful attempts to open others. It should also be pointed out that Portale's reserved, low-key personality is not the stuff of which chef brands are made.

In the end, if the result of all these chef brands is more delicious food available in more places, isn't that a win-win for us and the chefs? Let them get rich as long as more of us get to eat well. And if their brand extensions are not up to snuff, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Serious eaters can vote with our mouths and wallets.

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