For those of us whose hearts and minds are often ruled by our stomachs, a truly fantastic meal can turn even the direst of days into a delightful one. America's obsession with food and all things related has never been more apparent than now, thanks to the plethora of wildly popular cooking instruction and competition television shows, best-selling cookbooks and culinary Web sites that command more traffic than many other popular sites combined.
Behind the surge in food-related entertainment are a smattering of celebrity chefs that bring personality, culinary know-how and a dash of intrigue to the dinner table.
We've compiled a list of 10 of the most well-known and influential celebrity chefs ruling the marketplace today. The true test of their celebrity status? Even if you've never sat down to watch a cooking show, you probably know who many of these food fanatics are.
Read the next page to learn about the very first celebrity chef.
Before many of our celebrity chefs were even born, Julia Child launched the television cooking craze that has helped perpetuate today's food-centered networks and culinary personalities.
Child, who died at age 91 in 2004, became an unlikely celebrity chef following the 1961 publication of her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." The cookbook was followed up with television appearances that launched her to international fame, setting the stage for future celebrity chefs. Sure, most of us aren't going to try our hand at Child's Boeuf Bourguignon or Lobster Thermidor anytime soon, but it's nice to know we have the option!
Child's celebrity status continued to thrive long after her passing with the release of the major motion picture "Julie & Julia," based on a book about an everyday woman who committed herself to the daunting task of cooking every recipe found in "Mastering." Although Child expressed mixed opinions of the book (the movie was released after her death), it helped introduce her work and remarkable persona to a new generation of fans.
Many chefs would be thrilled with a successful restaurant or two, or perhaps a couple of widely read cookbooks. Gordon Ramsay, however, has all this and more. He takes life as a professional celebrity chef up a notch -- or 10.
Born in Scotland and raised in England, Ramsay boasts multiple successful eateries around the world, including the aptly-named Gordon Ramsay, Petrus and Boxwood Café. Clearly not content to simply demonstrate his mad cooking skills for an audience, Ramsay has served as the illustrious host of the U.K.'s "Kitchen Nightmares" and the popular show "Hell's Kitchen." He's also currently hard at work hosting and serving as executive producer of "MasterChef." But if you want real proof of his celebrity status, look no further than the 2011 episode of "The Simpsons" titled "The Food Wife," where he appeared (in animated form, of course) as himself. You know a chef's a true celebrity once he's been in a cartoon.
Those wily executives at Food Network know exactly what they're doing. By bringing British cook Nigella Lawson on board as a television personality, they undoubtedly reeled in an audience of men who enjoy the double threat of a beautiful woman and good cooking. The exotic accent doesn't hurt, either.
Lawson, who has also appeared on the Style Network, Cooking Channel and E!, has authored eight cooking-centered books, selling more than 6 million copies worldwide. Lawson's success is even more amazing considering the fact that she never attended culinary school. In fact, she graduated from Oxford University in 1979 with a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages. Eventually, her career as a journalist led to a position as a food editor at British Vogue, which launched her career as a publicly acclaimed author and foodie.
An expert French chef by trade, Bourdain is known for his biting wit and unadulterated honesty concerning all things food- and chef-related (he's particularly open regarding his feelings toward fellow celeb cook Rachael Ray). Currently, Bourdain is the Chef-at-large at Les Halles in New York City; however, he has no plans to open any other restaurants anytime soon, citing his age and the hectic pace of restaurant life as the main factors.
Instead, Bourdain prefers to travel the globe as host of the Travel Channel's hit series "No Reservations" and "The Layover," sampling and providing his expert opinion on a range of international "delicacies" that would terrify the rest of us. These exotic dishes are a far cry from escargot, which many regular people find intimidating. Nope, Bourdain has sampled everything from raw seal eyeball to fermented shark to warthog rectum. That's right, rectum. That's not to say that he enjoyed all these dishes, but he tried them, which has to count for something!
Flay's television career is storied and impressive, having started out on Food Network in 1994. Currently, he's most well-known for his presence on "Iron Chef America," a popular cooking competition show, as well as for being the host of "The Next Food Network Star."
Known for high-end restaurants like New York City's Mesa Grill, Flay has branched out into the more affordable culinary sector with his popular chain of burger joints, aptly named "Bobby's Burger Palace." Who says good cooking has to come with a hefty price tag? Menu items include onion rings, sweet potato fries and the Crunchburger, which is topped with potato chips and pickles.
This Iron Chef's prowess doesn't end with television and restaurants, though. He's written a dozen cookbooks over the years and is also an active philanthropist for a variety of worthy causes.
Tom Colicchio is a relative newcomer on the celebrity scene, but he's been a fixture in the restaurant world for many years. While Colicchio is known best for his role as the host of Bravo's "Top Chef," he cemented his status as a restaurateur when he opened the popular Gramercy Tavern in New York City in 1994. He then went on to create the Craft family of restaurants, which now have outposts all over the country. Colicchio is known for his no-nonsense, low-drama demeanor, which translates well to his style of cooking.
As anyone who's ever eaten at one of the Craft restaurants can tell you, Colicchio's recipes tend to focus on single ingredients that are prepared simply and served family-style, emphasizing the craft of cooking, rather than the art form. The down-to-earth "Coleek," (as he is fondly referred to by his fans) firmly believes that salt and pepper is the most underrated seasoning combination, insists on roasting meat rather than grilling it and prefers to groove to some reggae while cooking up his feasts.
With her strong southern drawl and robust personality, Paula Deen has emerged as a standout female celebrity chef in an industry largely dominated by men. But she had to earn her success.
Dean started a catering company making boxed lunches for local businesses, aptly named The Bag Lady, and sent her sons to make the deliveries. This eventually led to opening The Lady and Sons restaurant in Savannah, Ga., in 1996. Subsequently, Deen was featured on an episode of Oprah about women who started businesses in their homes, but it wasn't until QVC sold 70,000 copies of her cookbook in one day that she catapulted into the mainstream. Her popular Food Network cooking show, "Paula's Home Cooking," furthered her celebrity status, particularly because she shares a story from her fascinating life about each of her dishes. In addition to her cooking shows and restaurants, Deen's empire also consists of a magazine and a line of baking mixes. In 2005, she made her acting debut in Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown."
Mario Batali is well-known for his amenable television persona and delectable Italian food dishes, but he didn't always aspire to be a chef. Batali attended Rutgers University, majoring in Spanish theater and business management with aspirations of moving to Spain to be a banker. He got a job working as a dishwasher at the New Jersey restaurant Stuff Yer Face, and quickly moved up to pizza maker. It was during this time that he found his calling in the food world.
After attending the Cordon Bleu in London, he spent three years cooking in a small town in Italy and discovered his passion for Italian food. Batali has developed a cooking style that takes the spirit of traditional Italian recipes and adapts them to seasonal ingredients that are available locally. The success of Babbo, his Greenwich Village flagship restaurant, has led to multiple restaurant ventures as well as television appearances, cookbooks and a line of cookware. His signature uniform of shorts, orange clogs and the ever-present ponytail can be described only as Molto Mario.
Emeril Lagasse is a certified megastar. He has a self-titled kingdom, which consists of multiple restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, packaged goods and a charitable foundation. Lagasse's well-branded empire is conservatively estimated to be worth more than $70 million and is the direct result of his hard work and tenacity.
As a teenager, he worked at a Portuguese bakery in his New England hometown, where he learned to make bread and pastries. He enrolled in the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University, and at the age of 23 was offered a job in New Orleans as the executive chef at the Commander's Palace restaurant. In 1990, he "kicked it up a notch" by opening his first Emeril's Restaurant. Then in 1992, the fledgling Food Network came knocking.
He made his debut on the network with "Essence of Emeril," for which Lagasse was originally paid $50 per episode. His other show, "Emeril Live," is now in syndication. The success of these two shows put the Food Network on the map and made Lagasse a household name. His fans can attest that Emeril definitely gives you a lot of "bam!" for your buck.
"Live, Love, Eat!" is the trademarked battle cry of the passionate and renowned Wolfgang Puck, who has achieved celebrity status as chef to the stars. Puck's vast empire is valued at more than $500 million and consists of numerous restaurants and cookbooks, a line of cookware and packaged goods, and a hopping catering business -- which serves as the official caterer of the Academy Awards Governor's Ball.
Puck was one of the first chefs to use a combination of French cooking techniques with locally-grown ingredients and was credited with helping put California cuisine on the map. Throughout his illustrious career, he has consistently followed his simplistic creed of good food, friendly service and a nice environment. Puck has become one of the most successful American immigrants of the 20th century, but while he's known as an able businessman, his preference is to be in the kitchen. In addition to being a regular guest on "Good Morning America" for the past 20 years, Puck has had several of his own TV specials and has made cameo appearances on numerous sitcoms.
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