The trouble with celebrity chefs

From our newsletter:

In our last newsletter, we linked to an article questioning whether we are witnessing the “twilight of the celebrity chef”, following the closure of a number of restaurants whose high-profile benefactors apparently weren’t enough to keep their establishments afloat. Last weekend the Financial Times published a profile of Jamie Oliver, whose restaurant empire appears to have been particularly hard hit by a combination of poor management, politics (Brexit!), and other factors one can sometimes be fooled into imagining that rich famous people never have to deal with:

“‘We had simply run out of cash,’ he recalls, as we sit on a vintage sofa at Oliver headquarters in north London nine months later. ‘And we hadn’t expected it. That is just not normal, in any business. You have quarterly meetings. You do board meetings. People supposed to manage that stuff should manage that stuff.’ A surprisingly sharp tone in his voice suggests that someone let him down and he was none too pleased. Oliver was left with no choice but to instruct his bankers to inject £7.5m from his own savings into the restaurants. A further £5.2m of his own money would follow over the next few months. Last year, Oliver was said to be worth £150m. Even so, £12.7m is not the kind of money that slips down the back of a sofa, vintage or otherwise”.













It’s a far cry from the cheeky young fellow we got to know zipping around London on his Vespa who would go on to become “Britain’s most successful media chef of all time. With sales of more than 40 million books, he is the UK’s best-selling non-fiction author”. Still, as the same article details, “as his celebrity has increased, so has the backlash — his campaigning on obesity has been accused of being ‘anti-poor’ and of ‘fat shaming’; while recently he was charged with ‘cultural appropriation‘ for marketing a new line of ‘jerk rice'”.

It’s of course unclear whether Oliver’s rise to fame is directly related to his ability to irritate people, and whether that irritation has anything to do with why his – and others’ – restaurants are no longer printing money by virtue of the famous name that adorns their signs. But it seems to be a time when (some) chefs may have reached peak celebrity, and might now be wishing that they’d kept their kitchen doors closed to cameras all those years ago to focus on just getting the soufflés right instead of perhaps being blinded by the limelight.

Which is not to say that famous chefs don’t get their soufflés right, nor indeed that public attention is something anyone should resist. But the lessons of Jamie Oliver and his colleagues who have suffered similar fates may be a useful tale about the vagaries of pursuing a public life that could come crashing down because of an unexpected recession and poor accountants that no amount of perfect rice recipes (jerked or not!) can fix.