The flamboyant chefs who boost their careers with TV shows and cookbooks have tough new competition, but it isn't coming from the kitchen. A wave of sexy, friendly and instantly recognizable celebrities — with no culinary experience — is finding that a side of Hollywood, Nashville, or supermodel goes quite well with a second career in food.
"People watch these shows so much because of the way they identify with the person on camera," said Bob Tuschman, a senior vice president for Food Network.
And so Valerie Bertinelli, Trisha Yearwood and Haylie Duff have spun off first acts in music and television into successful food shows. Ditto for Patti LaBelle, Mila Kunis and Hayden Panettiere, who have appeared on cooking specials or as judges. Supermodel Chrissy Teigen and musician Questlove have cookbooks coming out next spring. Even rapper Coolio did a cookbook and series of YouTube cooking videos.
"I have a chef friend who was joking with me the other day, 'Oh, you actresses, you all get your own shows now," Bertinelli said in a recent interview.
Bertinelli said she had fantasized about having a Food Network show and now "can't believe it's actually happening." Friends and family make guest appearances on "Valerie's Home Cooking," and Bertinelli tries to capture the feeling she got from cooking with her mother or grandmother. "It was always about family, and food was about spending time with people you love. I'm hoping that comes across in my show."
Asked about the challenge of hooking viewers who can't taste or smell what she cooks on TV, Bertinelli responded with an example of the skills actresses bring to the food business. "You explain to people the smells that you're smelling and the tastes that you're tasting. You can make people excited about food even if they can't taste it," said Bertinelli, who already had fans from the sitcoms "One Day at a Time" and "Hot in Cleveland."
Tuschman credits Rachael Ray — who had worked in food, but isn't a chef — for making this possible. He said her success "changed the type of people we put on the air. It was a sea change for us. I think that probably opened up the way for celebrities to come in." Now, he said, "The interesting thing is we don't have to do the convincing these days. Celebrities come to us, in great numbers, who are interested in being associated with Food Network. We're delighted about it."
There really has been a shift, said Josee Johnston, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, and co-author of "Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape."
"Cookbooks, there used to be a significant part of the market that was just written by cookbook authors. And now it's harder to publish a cookbook without being a celebrity in some way," Johnston said, though that includes some trained chefs who market themselves as celebrities. She said it all fits with a broader trend. "We expect celebrities to give us lifestyle advice on multiple aspects of our lives."
Johnston thinks non-chef celebrities are finding new food careers partly because viewers and readers — especially women — look for somebody "who is not trained, who you can relate to as a person who has limited skills but an abiding interest in food. Which is how I think a lot of us define ourselves."
Lee Schrager, founder of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the New York City Wine and Food Festival, believes the celebrity trend will continue to grow. "I think we're just touching upon it. These are household names. So the fact that they come with a built-in audience and a built in following" is a natural fit for special events and television. Schrager said the key point is, "You trust those people."
But chefs with serious culinary training will still have a place, Johnston said. "As more celebrities enter the field as food experts, hardcore foodies will probably reject a lot of these cookbooks," or pass on celebrity food shows. Johnston also noted that some chefs have risen to celebrity status themselves.
Tuschman said young chefs have a different view of the food business now, too. "From what I hear a lot of people go to culinary school hoping that they will have a career like a Bobby Flay, where they will end up being in food television as much as in a restaurant," he said. But whether the host is a chef or a celebrity, viewers "want somebody who makes the kitchen feel like a very warm and welcoming place."