How These Celeb Chefs Became So Famous

Although a ubiquitous part of modern society, the role of the celebrity chef is still somewhat undefinable. Of course, they are cooks, but in order to sustain their success celebrity chefs cannot rely on gastronomic talent alone. They must also be enigmatic presenters, economic-minded entrepreneurs, and culturally-savvy individuals (via The International Journal of Hospitality Management).

With TV shows, restaurants, and cookbooks seemingly springing simultaneously from thin air, you would be forgiven for thinking that celebrity chefs burst from anonymity with all these impressive skills in tow. However, the truth of the matter is that nearly all initially relied on one element — be it cooking, writing, or blind luck — to catapult them to celebrity status.

While few are the chefs who get a big break, fewer still are those who sustain and build their brand. It is this tiny percentile of people who come to dominate our screens. Their names are recognizable, faces familiar, yet the original reason for their fame is all too often forgotten. In an effort to right this wrong, we have collated the myriad of ways in which some of your favorite celebrity chefs rose to fame.

Kwame Onwuachi

Kwame Onwuachi may be young, but his incredible story and personable nature have cemented him amongst the upper echelons of celebrity chefdom. Most came to know Onwuachi through Season 13 of the immensely popular cooking show "Top Chef," where he finished in sixth place (via Top Chef Stats). Speaking to Mashed, Onwuachi revealed what he gained from the experience: "You get to learn a lot, right? You get to cook for really amazing people time and time again [...] You're able to get real feedback and evolve and grow as a chef."

Surprisingly, what elevated Onwuachi from a somewhat recognizable chef to a certified celebrity was not success but failure. His first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, misfired spectacularly, closing its doors after less than three months of being open (per Eater). Bad reviews bemoaning both the food and price, from prominent publications such as The Washington Post, looked like they might destroy Onwuachi's budding career for good. 

However, his comeback as head chef at hotel restaurant Kith and Kin, alongside the release of his memoir "Notes From a Young Black Chef," formed a resurgence that turned his narrative around, won him numerous awards and plaudits, and elevated him to superstardom (per The New York Times).

Gordon Ramsay

Arguably the most well-known celebrity chef in the world, Gordon Ramsay has been a regular fixture on TV screens across the globe since the late 1990s (via IMDb). "Boiling Point," the miniseries that launched his career as a celebrity chef, followed Ramsay as he opened his flagship restaurant. Aside from the fantastic food, what caught viewers' attention and drove Ramsay to fame were his furious violent outbursts and penchant for profanities (per BBC).

Despite his flagship restaurant achieving three Michelin stars and many other ventures winning stars of their own (via Daily Record), Ramsay's outbursts have formed the basis of his fame. TV programs such as "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Hell's Kitchen," which solidified his position at the top of the celebrity chef pecking order, were first and foremost entertainment programs that many watched solely for his fiery personality (per The Guardian). 

In an interview with Bon Appétit, Ramsay tried to explain the reasons behind his famous outbursts saying, "When I get angry, I'm just being honest, and I don't think it's ever going to be any different. I, like any good chef, want everything to be perfect [...] When you are in the middle of service, it's like four to five hours of being in a pressure cooker."

Carla Hall

If Gordon Ramsay has built his career by epitomizing the red-faced screaming chef stereotype, Carla Hall has done the exact opposite. She became famous as so many future celebrity chefs do: via televised cooking competitions. In Hall's case, the show that would change her life was "Top Chef," an opportunity she says laid the foundation for all her future successes (via Metro Weekly). 

Hall finished as a top runner-up in the competition, however, it was not just her cooking abilities that fans grew privy to but also her kind nature. In fact, Hall was so widely liked that she was invited back for Season 8 "Top Chef All-Stars." Again, Hall's warmth won out, leading her to be voted a fan favorite for the season (via Top Chef Stats). 

Given Hall's culinary knowledge, growing popularity, and evidently personable nature, it came as little surprise when she was announced as one of five hosts for a new daytime food program "The Chew" in 2012 (via Entertainment Weekly). Despite the show being canceled in 2018 (via Eater), Hall has continued to rise as a culinary contributor on "Good Morning America" and through appearances on numerous prominent food and cooking programs (per Carla Hall).

Delia Smith

Delia Smith, Britain's 20th-century eminent celebrity chef, cut her culinary teeth at London restaurant The Singing Chef (per The Guardian). Despite baking the cake that featured on the front cover of The Rolling Stones' 1969 album "Let it Bleed" (via Delia Online), Smith's cooking was not what propelled her to fame. Instead, her writing initially brought attention to her name.

Smith's food writing career began in 1969 when she got a job at The Daily Mirror, a role which was followed by positions at a number of British newspapers (via Square Meal). These jobs proved the perfect springboard for Smith to launch perhaps the most successful and well-known aspect of her career: cookbook authoring. Her cookbooks — 24 of them (per Waterstones) — have sold over 21 million copies (per Delia Online) and cleared the way for her to launch a career in television.

The enormous platform Smith built through her writing and on-screen appearances combined to create the first instance of a phenomenon now commonplace in society. The so-called Delia effect — where ingredients, utensils, and products mentioned by the celebrity chef would quickly sell out nationally — marked Smith as a culinary superstar and perhaps the world's very first influencer (per Science & Media Museum).

Jamie Oliver

Beginning his career under the nickname of The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver rose to fame as a boyish, jovial cook, who seemed born to be in front of a camera. His gastronomic skills were honed at the age of 16 when he started working in the kitchen at his parents' gastropub in Essex (per Britannica). It was while a production team was filming a documentary at London's River Cafe that Oliver (the sous chef at the time) caught their eye (via Food & Wine).

In a little under two years after his discovery, Oliver's first show "The Naked Chef" aired. The show's title refers to the chef's penchant for stripped-back simple food — not workplace nudity — and was a smash hit, drawing in crowds not normally associated with cooking programs (per BBC). Multiple cookbooks and other television programs followed, ensuring Oliver has remained a mainstay in popular cooking culture ever since.

Meanwhile in Britain, Oliver reached a whole new level of celebrity through his work on the intersection between food and social issues. This side of his career, exemplified by the Feed Me Better campaign, has generally sought to improve access to healthy nutritious foods (via BBC). Most recently, campaigning has led Oliver to successfully support the UK's introduction of a sugar tax (via Jamie Oliver).

Christina Tosi

Despite being born into a family of passionate bakers and developing a ferocious sweet tooth throughout her childhood, it still took Christina Tosi some time to decide that cooking was her career path (via The Guardian). Once she came to that conclusion, it still took her a while to realize that the traditional desserts served in high-end restaurants were not her cup of tea either. "I didn't relate deep down with these fancy desserts. I loved the art of them, I loved the craft of them, but they just weren't me." (per Inc.).

It is not surprising Tosi found these jobs constraining, especially when you consider that what set her apart — and would ultimately launch her to fame — were her crazy and delicious flavor combinations. Her delightfully addictive creations such as cereal milk ice cream and compost cookies have led her to win multiple James Beard awards and to be profiled by the highly popular Netflix show "Chef's Table." Both of these achievements underline Tosi's status as a celebrity chef, a title reinforced by the continued expansion of her Milk Bar empire (via Eater).

Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson's most enduring childhood memory is the smell of his grandma's house, the exact place where he developed his passion for cooking (via CNBC). Samuelsson never let go of this love and gained experience throughout his young adulthood, working in a multitude of kitchens across Europe. But it was the opportunity to intern at Aquavit, a prestigious Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, that set Samuelsson up for an impressive career as a celebrity chef. During his tenure, both Samuelsson and the restaurant thrived, paving the way for the well-respected chef.

However, stardom came with the opening of Red Rooster, Samuelsson's own restaurant in Harlem. As noted by The New York Times, Red Rooster quickly became a restaurant renowned for great food, a bubbling atmosphere, and a refreshingly genuine focus on diversity. The publicity produced by brilliant reviews paled in comparison to the media frenzy whipped up when then-President Barack Obama hosted a fundraiser at Samuelsson's restaurant (per Eater). Riding this wave, Samuelsson duly reinforced his celebrity chef status, in part by taking on other roles that exposed him to the wider public. The most notable of these became his position as guest editor and advisor at Bon Appétit (via Condé Nast).

Barbara B Smith

It is rare that an established celebrity chooses to become embroiled in the culinary business. It is even rarer still that this celebrity achieves industry-changing success. Barbara Smith — better known as B. Smith — is one such individual. Having carved a successful career for herself as a model, featuring as only the second Black model to be the cover star of Mademoiselle in the 1970s (per The New York Times), Smith began her career as a restaurateur with a similar groundbreaking intent.

Accustomed to being a Black woman in a traditionally white-dominated industry, Smith set about dismantling the obstacles facing other Black restaurateurs and acting as a role model to younger generations, as described by food writer Korsha Wilson in The New Yorker. Chef and artist Krystal Mack was also positively impacted by B Smith's gastronomic career explaining, "She is someone who has given a voice and face to Black women in food media, and quite frankly, many of us probably wouldn't be where we are without her proven valuation of Black women," (via Food & Wine).

Marco Pierre White

Being the first British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars drove Marco Pierre White to immense fame in the culinary world (via Black & White Hospitality). However, similar to some of his contemporaries, White reached wider notoriety largely thanks to his reputation as a chef with a fiery temper (via The New York Times).

If White's career trajectory up until he received his third star was all too common at the time, what he did after his ground-breaking achievement was not. At 38 years old when he had the world at his feet, White retired from the kitchen for reasons he explained to Luxury London: "I was sick of being judged by people with less knowledge than me, it was ludicrous. And the truth is that winning three stars is intensely exciting but maintaining them is the most boring thing in the world."

To his chagrin, The Sunday Times dubbed White the world's first celebrity chef, even though his work in TV and advertising was somewhat limited for a chef of his caliber. Yet, his irregular appearances on "MasterChef" do little to explain the fame that continues to be associated with his name, over 20 years after his retirement. One such reason for his continued influence on the gastronomic world is that proteges such as Gordon Ramsay, who — with lessons learned from White — continue to drive the industry forward.

David Chang

As with many of the chefs on this list, David Chang was born to a parent in the industry. In Chang's case, his father was less than enthusiastic about his son pursuing a life dedicated to kitchen work and instead tried to coax him toward other careers (per JP Morgan Chase & Co). However, the allure of the kitchen proved too strong and before long, Chang had borrowed money to launch his own restaurant Momofuku — you might have heard of it.

The growing hype around Chang's original noodle bar came by way of the honest, hearty, and reasonably priced food (via The New York Times). Chang's star really began to rise when he opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko. As one restaurant became two then three, Chang revealed his ability to adapt and innovate on an unforeseen scale. 

Increasingly, his skill set has been utilized outside of kitchens altogether with the same level of success. Netflix's "Ugly Delicious" and his food magazine "Lucky Peach," both proved groundbreaking for the gastronomic world. It is his continued ability to express a unique voice across both the restaurant and media landscapes that has led Chang to attain legendary status.

Rachael Ray

While the majority of people on this list have earned their status of celebrity chef through intensively regimented culinary training and practice, Rachael Ray has found fame by utilizing her own informal style (per The Guardian). After a variety of jobs, Ray found that she most enjoyed working with food. She also realized that the American public wanted information on how to make quick, easy, and delicious meals. As such, Ray set about providing just that and hosting cookery classes at the grocery store she worked at, an experience that quickly caught the eye of TV producers (via Good Housekeeping).

These classes soon transformed into Food Network's wildly popular "30 Minute Meals", which won an Emmy in 2006 (via IMDb) and propelled Ray to the upper echelons of celebrity. On the show, Ray embraces her lack of culinary training and rarely uses exact measurements or complex techniques. Unsurprisingly, this has brought her some criticism in the past. Yet, it is also this informality that makes Ray's cooking so accessible and popular, a fact not lost on Ray herself (via CT Insider).

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

Perhaps as the world's most popular purveyor of fusion cuisine, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa has become a household name. After working in both Japan and Peru, Matsuhisa sought to combine his favorite parts of both cuisines: sushi from the former and unique South American flavors from the latter. The combination of Japanese techniques and punchy ingredients was the star of the show at his restaurant in Beverly Hills, impressing a whole host of the Los Angeles elite (per The New York Times). Amongst them was Robert De Niro, who loved Matsuhisa's cooking so much that he encouraged and backed Matsuhisa's expansion to New York (via Eater). The resulting restaurant, Nobu, has become a sensation with locations spanning the globe (per Food & Wine).

The backing of people like De Niro has of course contributed to Matsuhisa's fame, yet it's his culinary ability that has allowed him to cement it. Great skill is needed to make high-quality sushi (via Kobe Jones), but additional talent is required to succeed with the complexities of fusion cuisine (per Escoffier). Yet, the masterstroke that has caused the Nobu empire to endure is Matsuhisa's uncanny knack for producing menus that can cater to all, even those averse to raw fish (via The New York Times). A very rare trait in a sushi chef indeed.

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal is without a doubt an extremely talented chef, although his early resume does little to attest to this fact. As reported by The Guardian, Blumenthal spent his young adulthood working as a credit controller and only began cooking in a kitchen when he opened his own restaurant, The Fat Duck. This untraditional entry into the industry mirrors Blumenthal's own unique nature and wacky, scientific cooking style.

It is the latter that brought Blumenthal and The Fat Duck to fame, earning him culinary and scientific renown, and the title of the world's best restaurant for the venue in 2005 (via The World's 50 Best). Yet, a restaurant of that prestige is rarely accessible to all, and Blumenthal had to rely on another means of connecting with the majority of the British and global populations. This arrived in the form of TV programs such as "Feast" and "Heston's Mission Impossible," both of which exemplified the chef's taste for scientific gastronomy and theatrics (via The Guardian).

Anthony Bourdain

It is no secret what launched Anthony Bourdain into the spotlight. His book "Kitchen Confidential," the tell-all confessional that revealed what a career in the kitchen could be like, shocked the world and gained him instant notoriety (via The New York Times). While there have been others whose culinary non-fiction works resulted in fame such as Julie Powell, their stints at the top were typically bright but short. However, Bourdain's fame lasted until his untimely death in 2018.

The reason for Bourdain's continued popularity is manifold. Yet, perhaps the most pertinent reason was Bourdain's undeniable passion for all things food. As reported by The New York Times, Bourdain championed the regular kitchen worker and celebrated the industry as it was — a method far removed from the sanitized writings of many other prominent journalists. Bourdain consequently became a figurehead for the industry and grew into an icon for both those who shared his beloved occupation and those that just happened to have an infatuation with food.