Celebrity chefs who aren't "chefs" at all

What does it really mean to be a celebrity chef?

To make it in the ranks of celebrity chef stardom, you need to do a whole lot more than just open an acclaimed restaurant. To earn the distinction of celebrity chef nowadays, you need to write best-selling cookbooks, produce a bevy of popular television programs, win a shelf-full of prestigious awards, publish a self-named magazine, design a line of retail homegoods, and manage to do it all with perfectly styled hair and a smile. 

But do you need to go to culinary school? While culinary schools across the world keep filling their rosters with eager young hopefuls anxious to be the next culinary superstar, it turns out that a culinary degree may not be the secret to celebrity chef success. Think your favorite celebrity chef has earned that coveted diploma? Read on to learn which celebrity chefs didn't earn their title in an actual culinary school, but rather at the school of hard knocks. 

Gordon Ramsay

Hothead celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, has created quite a culinary and media empire for himself. The star of many television hits like Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef has also penned multiple cookbooks, as well as his own autobiography. All of this while maintaining a string of restaurants that span the globe including locations in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Qatar, France, and Singapore. At his UK locations, he has been awarded highly coveted Michelin stars for his restaurants Aubergine, Petrus, and his namesake, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Not too shabby for a former footballer who didn't even attend culinary school.

That's right. Ramsay studied hotel management in college, but really earned his place in the restaurant world by training under world famous chefs like Joel Robuchon and Marco Pierre White. Ramsay's perseverance and can-do, abrasive attitude even translates into his home life. Ramsay boasted to the Telegraph that he doesn't intend to leave his fortune to his four children, all of whom receive modest allowances, and are not permitted to fly with him in first class.

Rachael Ray

Culinary superstar, Rachael Ray, would be the first to admit that she is not a chef, but a cook. She told ABC News, "I'm not a chef. … And that's fine… I don't bake. I don't do things the right way. I chop an onion wrong, and I am teaching people how to do it — all that stuff."

Her audience certainly doesn't seem to mind. The first ever non-chef to get her own show on Food Network, 30 Minute Meals, Ray learned her trade by watching her mom manage restaurants throughout her youth, and following suit herself in upstate New York. A stint at a local gourmet food shop led to Ray teaching her down to earth, 30-minute-style classes, which were spied by a local television station that offered her a spot. Countless cookbooks, product lines, a monthly magazine, charities, and a daily major network talk show later, Rachael Ray doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Yum-o!

Ina Garten

Whether you call her Ina Garten, or refer to her as the Barefoot Contessa, the one thing you can't call Ina Garten is a trained chef. In fact, the very first day that Garten cooked professionally was the day she followed her bliss, and took over the Barefoot Contessa specialty foods shop in the Hamptons, after leaving a career in the White House Office of Energy and Budget. Garten ran the store successfully for 18 years until she sold the business, and decided to write a cookbook featuring some of her favorite recipes from the shop and her home. The cookbook was a smash hit, and by 2002, the Food Network was knocking on her door.

Now at ten cookbooks and counting, as well as numerous magazine columns, Garten has been filming her show, The Barefoot Contessa, for well over a decade. She also loves cooking for her celebrity friends and neighbors, as well as her huggable husband, Jeffrey. And as long as fans continue to embrace her approachable, entertaining-friendly menus and cooking style, there will likely be many more episodes to come.

Guy Fieri

A couple of things might surprise you about the king of Flavortown, Guy Fieri. For one, he wasn't born Guy Fieri, but Guy Ferry (he changed it to family name Fieri to honor his Italian grandfather). Second, he is not a professionally trained chef.

Fieri attended the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where he earned his degree in hospitality management. Looking up to his idol, Emeril Lagasse, Fieri had set his sights on becoming a Food Network personality, while honing his kitchen skills in chain restaurants like California's Louise's Trattoria. His first try to score with the network was a miss, but his second attempt was his big payday when he was crowned victor of the second season of Food Network Star in 2006. Fieri has parlayed that win into a culinary empire including cookbooks, multiple restaurant locations around the world, and television shows like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and Guy's Grocery Games.

Ree Drummond

Ree Drummond, aka, The Pioneer Woman, has accomplished the remarkable feat of transforming herself from a humble food blogger, to a verifiable lifestyle brand, in just a little over a decade from when she began writing her blog in 2006. Today, Drummond's writing and photography achievements include not only her award-winning blog, but also multiple cookbooks, children's books, a magazine, and a bestselling autobiography. You can catch her successful cooking show that's been running since 2011 on Food Network, purchase her kitschy and colorful line of homegoods at Walmart, and even visit her mercantile and restaurant in Oklahoma that feeds up to 6,000 folks a day. A nearby hotel is in the works. Pretty impressive for a former city girl who planned to become either a lawyer or broadcast journalist — and never attended culinary school.

Life turned upside down for the pencil skirt and stiletto-wearing Drummond when she met the love of her life, husband Ladd Drummond, who her fans will know affectionately as the "Marlboro Man." After marrying herself to a world of cattle ranching, home-schooling, and real-life cowboys, Drummond set about  to "start one of those blog things," never realizing the juggernaut that was about to follow.

Tom Colicchio

Celebrity chef and restaurateur, Tom Colicchio, has enjoyed many accolades in his career. While chef at NYC's Mondrian, Food and Wine Magazine named him one of the best new chefs in America. His famed Manhattan restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, earned him the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef – New York award in 2000, which was followed by another James Beard award in 2002 for Colicchio's restaurant, Craft, which was named Best New Restaurant of the year. Colicchio's Craft and 'wichcraft restaurants now appear all over New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. When not running his restaurant empire, Colicchio finds time to host the wildly successful cooking competition show, Top Chef.

And he does all of that without a culinary degree. Daunted by Culinary Institute of America's requirement that an applicant should have already worked at two restaurants, Colicchio decided to go to work. He worked in restaurant and hotel kitchen's throughout New Jersey while studying cookbooks by Jacques Pepin. He cooked his way up into the Manhattan restaurant scene, and landed a gig at the lauded Quilted Giraffe. Colicchio told Bloomberg, "It was a four-star restaurant. I was still planning on culinary school, but once I was promoted from line cook to sous chef, that was it." His time there led to more restaurants on the East Coast and in France, cementing his way to his fame-making position at Mondrian.

Martha Stewart

Lifestyle queen, Martha Stewart, is sitting pretty on top of a multimedia empire and fortune reportedly worth over $1 billion. Her cookbooks, food and lifestyle magazines, websites, household products, and syndicated cooking shows are enjoyed the world over. And not only has this lifestyle dynamo always made it seem effortless, she's also done it all without a culinary degree.

As a teen in New Jersey, Stewart worked as a fashion model, later attending Barnard College where she earned her degree in European and architectural history. She worked as a Wall Street stockbroker until moving to Connecticut, where she and her husband renovated a 19th century farmhouse, and she taught herself to cook using Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A successful catering company made way for her foray into books, like Entertaining, and Martha Stewart's Christmas. Her brand began to blossom into the behemoth it is today when it went public in 1999. 

Paula Deen

Paula Deen is known as being the chef who never met a pound of butter she didn't like. Her Southern, down-home recipes, which made her a Food Network staple for over a decade, may not have been the healthiest recipes on the channel, but her eager fan-base gobbled them up, along with her cookbooks, and self-named magazine.

Deen not only didn't attend culinary school, but also got her career started later in life. After a divorce, she relocated with her sons to Savannah, Georgia, where she started a local bagged lunch catering business. The business led to her first restaurant, The Lady, followed by a larger location called The Lady & Sons, where she teamed up with sons Jamie and Bobby. Cookbooks followed, The Food Network called, and Deen and family enjoyed tremendous success — until scandals over racist comments, mistreated employees, and her oddly-timed announcement that she was living with diabetes caused her to lose most of her lucrative endorsement deals, as well as her television contracts and publishing deals.

Through it all, Deen still perseveres. She released her own online network in 2014, and competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2015. Her latest show, Positively Paula, airs nationwide.

Mario Batali

Another chef who is no stranger to scandal, Mario Batali also rose to culinary fame without a traditional culinary pedigree. Though he attended the famed Le Cordon Bleu in London, he never finished his degree, opting instead to work under the tutelage of London chef Marco Pierre White. He cooked throughout Europe and Italy before embarking for NYC. His first restaurant, Po, paved the path for his partnership with restaurateur Joe Bastianich, and his flagship restaurant, Babbo, which the James Beard foundation named Best New Restaurant in 1998.

He donned his now trademarked ponytailed hair and orange Crocs for his first television cooking show, Molto Mario, and continued opening successful restaurants across NYC, the US, and the world. Batali penned numerous successful cookbooks, and launched a line of packaged Italian pantry foods. Most of this success came to a grinding halt, of course, amidst the sexual harassment scandal of 2017. Batali stepped away from his business ventures, was dismissed as a host of ABC's The Chew, and his product line now donates proceeds to women's charities as they transition to new branding.

Lidia Bastianich

Chef, restaurateur, Emmy-winning television host, and best-selling cookbook author — all things you might say to describe Lidia Bastianich. Among other things that you can say about Bastianich? She never went to culinary school, and she wasn't technically born in Italy.

Bastianich was born in Istria, which was at one time a part of Italy, but was annexed to communist Yugoslavia after WWII. She shared her story with Feast about what it was like to grow up being forbidden to speak Italian in public, eventually fleeing with her family to an Italian refugee camp, and later immigrating to NYC. Bastianich eventually attended Hunter College, and opened a small restaurant with her husband in Queens, where she worked not as chef, but hostess. She trained to become assistant chef, and her cooking garnered such acclaim that they opened a second and third restaurant, including the renowned, Felidia. Julia Child invited Bastianich to guest on her program, and soon PBS was airing Bastianich's first show, Lidia's Italian Kitchen. Today, you can visit Lidia's restaurants the world over, including the hot-spots where she has partnered with her son, Joe, and Mario Batali, like NYC's four-star, Del Posto, or any of the mega-store, Eataly locations.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson is the first person to admit that she is not a chef. She told The Guardian in 2013, "I'm not a chef — I'm not even trained," and refers to herself as a "kitchen klutz."

Lawson's star rose as her stint as restaurant critic for The Spectator made way for a column in The New York Times. She eventually became food editor of British Vogue, and penned her first of many successful cookbooks in 1998. By 2001, viewers in Britain and the US were enjoying her charms and late night snacking on the show Nigella Bites.

While she may not be a trained chef, Lawson does have quite the pedigree. Her mother was a descendant of the J. Lyons and Co. fortune, which at one time was one of the largest food companies in the world. Her dad was a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Lawson attended Oxford University, and earned her degree in medieval and modern languages.

So what does Nigella Lawson, the "Domestic Goddess," consider herself to be? She told The Guardian that she sees herself as "a food writer more than a cook," and hopes that her books and television shows demonstrate that cooking doesn't have to be "tricksy or difficult." She also aims to share the recipes of her dearly departed mother and sister, both of whom she lost early to cancer.