Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The rise of the Superchef

By Charlotte Dawes
BBC Money Programme

Delia Smith
Delia Smith was the first of a growing army of celebrity chefs

Celebrity chefs have changed us and our attitude to food forever.

They have had a huge cultural and social impact on the UK, and together they have created an industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

The longest serving of our celebrity chefs is Delia Smith. She has been teaching generations how to cook over four decades.

It all started with her first show, Family Fare, back in 1973.

Delia, as she is fondly known, appeared on our screens in a different era, long before the UK fell in love with good food and restaurant-going was a rare event for most, when a prawn cocktail and a melon boat was considered to be an exotic meal.

Delia became the face of home cooking on television and used the medium to pass on her love of the subject and to educate the audience.

"You can show people how to make an omelette in about two minutes, and it'll take 800 words to explain it," she says.

"So to actually see it being done, that is what makes people think, 'I can do that'."

Books for cooks

Although TV came after cookery books, they have not been consigned to the history books.

Gordon Ramsey
Celebrity sells books, as Gordon Ramsey has experienced

Quite the opposite, and the link between the two has become strong.

Last year's best-sellers were all first seen on TV: Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food, Delia's How to Cheat and Nigella's Christmas.

TV series create a shop window for books and the benefits are clear. Jamie, another chef known by his first name, saw his last five books bring in more than £42m.

But Delia was not the only face of food on television for long.

The 1980s saw the birth of a new class of restaurant-goer, the "Foodie".

Customers began to care about who was cooking their food and the hunt was on to find chefs with personality to take out of the kitchens and put in front of the cameras.

TV producer Peter Bazalgette came across Antony Worrall Thompson in a west London restaurant and after working with him on Food and Drink, thought he would be the perfect fit for his new cookery show idea.

According to AWT, as the chef is now known, "TV was no longer factual. It was more about entertainment and hence along came Ready Steady Cook."

Mr Bazalgette recalls how it "was hated by some of the very upmarket food critics, who thought it was a vulgar little programme and cheapened the whole art of cooking good food".

"I invented it, so I'm bound to say they're completely wrong," he quips.

Ready Steady Cook may have been hated by the critics, but it got the public vote and the format was sold around the world.

It was a money-spinner, but it was Mr Bazalgette, not the chefs, who pocketed the profit.

"Telly is not well paid in daytime," explains Antony. "I think it's very much a PR exercise. You get other things from it.

"You get personal appearance, and you get opening supermarkets, you get corporate gigs to do. Ready Steady Cook made my name."

Restaurant empires

The recession makes it a particularly difficult time for restaurants, and not even the Superchefs are immune to global financial turmoil.

Ready Steady Cook
Antony Worral Thomson says Ready Steady Cook helped make him what he is today

In January, AWT was forced to close four of his six restaurants.

"It's fascinating times," he says. "Six months ago, we had a rock-solid restaurant group, but now it's a wobbly restaurant group."

Whilst doubts exist about the future, last year celebrity TV chef Gordon Ramsay opened eight restaurants in London and worldwide, bringing his own take on French cuisine to Paris as well as opening in Los Angeles.

British celebrity chefs have interests in more than 50 restaurants between them, turning over hundreds of millions every year.

Gary Rhodes has just opened a new restaurant in Dorset. Rhodes South is the ninth in a global empire.

And publicity is crucial to keeping restaurants successful. "it's incredibly important to be on TV," says Rick Stein, who values his Padstow empire at £10m, insisting that his fame ensures there will be "bums on seats".

Lucrative contracts

Through their TV appearances, books and restaurants, the chefs soon came to be seen as having recipes to make pots of money.

Gary Rhodes
I believe that Britain produces the finest foods in the world
Gary Rhodes

Celebrity agents soon got involved.

In the late 1990s, Borra Garson set up a talent agency to manage the celebrity chefs.

Her biggest success is Jamie Oliver and she oversaw the signing of his contract with Sainsbury's.

"When they first approached, I can't say that he was 100% convinced this would be a good move," she recalls.

"We talked endlessly about it before he decided to sign on the dotted line.

"I remember leaving the law firm, after Jamie signed the contract, and I turned to him in the elevator and I said: 'Congratulations, you're now officially a millionaire.'"

Jamie is reported to have made up to a £1m from the first supermarket deal and whatever Jamie made, Ms Garson got a 15% slice of the pie.

Fiona Lindsay has a rival agency. She explains the role of an agent.

"The main reason for my existence in anyone's life is to make them a great deal of money," she says.

Gordon Ramsay's transition from kitchen to screen was overseen and shaped with Ms Lindsay's help.

"Gordon's first major television was Boiling Point," she says.

"It caused a huge furore in the press, because of all the swearing and a side of a chef they had never seen before."

Gordon's fiery TV persona sparked huge interest and the offers of work came pouring in. Soon, he became a chat show staple.

Delia, meanwhile, made it to the dictionary and AWT made it to the front page of the Sunday Mirror.

The chefs had arrived.

Image revival

Amongst the Superchefs, Jamie has manipulated his celebrity status to greatest effect.

Jamie Oliver serves healthy food to school children
Jamie's School Dinners revived the celebrity chef's image

Through his television exposure, he has been able to publicise issues close to his heart and revolutionised his image.

Indeed, although he once courted criticism for over-exposure, he has since become a master or reinvention.

"Jamie's School Dinners is the stand-out show of the last 10 years," says Boyd Hilton, TV critic of Heat Magazine.

"I don't think anyone could have disliked him after that. It transformed his reputation in an entirely positive way."

Jamie took his campaign to Downing Street and the government responded by committing extra money and setting new standards for school meals.

But celebrity has its costs.

As Ms Garson explains, "These are people who need bodyguards from time to time, just to walk through a crowd."

Pots and pans

With their names on our lips, the chefs soon moved into merchandising.

Food is a deeply political issue, raising all sorts of moral and ethical questions

AWT has exploited this market more than his rivals, having landed more licensing deals than any other chef in the UK or in Europe, turning over £60m a year in products alone.

Ms Lindsay explains what lies behind the popularity of branded goods.

"We're buying trust," she says.

"We're buying into reliability, but we're also buying a part of the celebrity, a piece of our favourite celebrity chef."

Despite the revenue potential from branding products, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Would we ever see Delia pots and pans, for example?

"Never. No. And anyway, they wouldn't be mine," she says.

"They'd be... some commercial company's paying me for my name.

"I have been to people and told them how to make something, for nothing, because it's what people need."

Taking ownership

Celebrity chefs are increasingly also making money from their television appearances, "vertically integrating" their operations by taking ownership of the companies that make their TV shows, observes Mr Bazalgette.

Jamie is a pioneer in this mould, with his own TV company and talent agency.

With Jamie at Home, he was the first chef to own the rights to the programme he starred in, selling it to Channel 4 and to broadcasters around the world.

The Superchefs are now Superbrands and the path they have laid is one that a new generation of entrepreneurial chefs will try to follow.

"This country has become full of really good 'foodies' who know what good food is all about," according to Gary Rhodes.

"I believe that Britain produces the finest foods in the world."

The rise of the Superchef. Broadcast 2100, BBC 2, Wednesday 25 February 2009.

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