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Top 10 Foodie Millionaires

This is a guest post by The Restaurant Blogger who is a major foodie and restaurant entrepreneur. If you’re interested in the food and restaurant industry, make sure to check out The Restaurant Blogger for insider tips.

When we talk about millionaires, we normally never include chefs. We just never would imagine how much a chef could earn in an industry that has been viewed as highly competitive with low compensation. Years ago people thought it was crazy to pay a head chef a six figure salary while the average annual income would range from $40,000 to $50,000. Today, some chefs can earn as much as $500,000 running a kitchen while there are others that earn even more but do more than just cooking. Top chefs are no longer just cooking for an audience. They have achieved celebrity status and have created a brand recognized worldwide.

This year Forbe’s has named ten chefs joining the millionaire club:

Forbes Top 10 Chefs

1. Rachel Ray, $18 million

Ranked at the top is Food Network star and cookbook author Rachel Ray earning an astounding $18 million US. Starting with her first Food Network show, 30 Minute Meals, she quickly gained the attention of viewers who enjoyed her simple home-style cooking. Today, she has created an empire that includes cookbooks, cookware, four Food Network programs, her Everyday with Rachel Ray magazine and the Rachel Ray talk show which is backed by Oprah Winfrey.

In addition to her highly successful shows and branded products, Ray has an endorsement deal with Dunkin’ Donuts and most recently added Rachel Ray Nutrish pet foods, a line of dog foods.

2. Wolfgang Puck, $16 million

Born in Austria, Wolfgang Puck started training at age 14 and quickly worked his way around several three-star French restaurants. In 1973, he went to the US becoming a star attraction as a chef and co-owner at Ma Maison. Puck then moved on to open Spago Hollywood which set a new standard of cooking. Combining his extensive French classical training with the use of fresh California ingredients, Puck has influenced chef/restaurateurs across America. Today, he has 15 fine dining restaurants including 86 other restaurants as well as 6 cookbooks, kitchenware and branded food products.

3. Gordon Ramsay, $7.5 million

After a brief appearance in professional soccer, Ramsay returned to college to complete his studies in hotel management. In 1993, he became the chef of Aubergine which received two Michelin stars within three years of opening. In 1998, Ramsay opened his first restaurant in Chelsea. Today his restaurants are spread across the UK, US, Europe, Middle East and Far East. His empire includes 19 fine dining restaurant including 4 other restaurants plus 12 cookbooks, 3 TV shows and kitchenware.

4. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, $5 million

Dubbed as the world’s greatest sushi chef, Nobu attracts the A-List of celebrities. However, his celebrity status never came easy. After a sushi chef apprenticeship in Japan, Nobu traveled to South America to experiment with local ingredients while crossing them with Japanese. Although creative, his business ventures failed. Determined to try again, he decided to set up in Anchorage. On the opening week of the restaurant, tragic news hit that it burnt down. Devastated, Nobu contemplated suicide but instead moved to the west coast of the United States. Eight years later, Matsuhisa opened which would become his flagship. Today, Nobu has 19 restaurants, 3 cookbooks and kitchenware. He has cooked private dinners for American presidents and prepared meals for the Oscar’s.

5. Alain Ducasse, $5 million

Alain Ducasse is perhaps one of the most recognized chefs in the world. Starting at 16, Ducasse career would include three apprenticeships that would lead him to working at some of France’s most prestigious restaurants. By 33, he was the youngest chef to achieve three Michelin stars and at 42 he was the first chef in 60 years to win six Michelin stars at one time. Now at 51, he continues to work 16 hour days. In 2000, he would open his first American location at the Essex House in New York. The restaurant quickly received four stars by the New York Times, but later received a cold rejection among the locals and critics for its outrageous service. The restaurant featured a $225 prix fixe menu and offered a selection of ten pens to sign the bill. A bad move by Ducasse, he has yet to conquer New York. Currently, he has 26 restaurants, 4 inns, 4 bakeries, 2 cooking schools, a hotel consortium, his own publishing company, 17 cookbooks and a line of kitchenware.

6. Paula Deen, $4.5 million

From being a single mother with two sons and with no college education, no formal culinary or no income, the then 42 year old Paul Deen focused on what she knew best, cooking in her home kitchen. In 1989, she started a lunch delivery service which her sons helped deliver sandwiches and cookies to local businesses. Within two years, the home business grew so big, Deen decided to open her first restaurant called The Lady. Today, she has 2 restaurants, 7 cookbooks, 2 television shows and branded food products. She has made regular TV appearances including CNN Larry King Live and Oprah. She also earned two Emmy awards in 2007 and at the same time was named as one of the 100 most powerful celebrities by Forbes.

7. Mario Batali, $3 million

After a short trail at Le Cordon Bleu in London, Batali dropped out of the famed culinary school and opted for an apprenticeship with London’s renowned chef Marco Pierre White. Furthering his training, Batali spent three years in a Northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne which gave him the essential skills of Italian cuisine. From there he returned to his native home in the US to share his knowledge of Italian cooking. Today, he has 13 restaurants, 1 wine shop, 6 cookbooks, 3 TV shows and kitchenware. In 1999, GQ named Batali “Man of the Year” in the chef category and in 2002 he was given the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: New York City award.

8. Tom Colicchio, $2 million

As the participating head judge on the Food Network’s show, Top Chef, Tom Colicchio has earned a number of achievements as a chef and restauranteur. At a young age, Colicchio taught himself to cook by reading various cooking guides by legendary chef, Jacques Pépin. His father encouraged Tom to pursue a culinary career. So at 17, he worked in a kitchen in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He continued his training in various top kitchens in New York starting at The Quilted Giraffe where it took him only four months to be promoted to sous chef. In 1994, he along with partner Danny Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan which quickly received three stars. Today, Colicchio has 8 fine dining restaurants, 3 cookbooks, 1 TV show and has ownership in 10 additional restaurants.

9. Bobby Flay, $1.5 million

Cooking since the age of 17, Flay began his career at Joe Allen’s, a job that was arranged by his father who was a partner in the restaurant. Owner Joe Allen was so impressed with Flay’s culinary talents that he paid for his tuition to The French Culinary Institute. From there, Flay’s career would quickly rise and it was only after he graduated that he discovered southwestern ingredients which would later be his inspiration in all his cooking. At 25, Flay helped open Mesa Grill and after receiving a wide positive reaction, Flay was offered to be a partner. Today he has 5 restaurants, 8 cookbooks, 4 TV shows, kitchenware and branded food products.

10. Anthony Bourdain, $1.5 million

After writing an article for The New York Magazine about life behind restaurant kitchens, Bourdain decided to write a humorous book called Kitchen Confidential which became in international bestseller. In 2000, he launched another book and a Food Network series called A Cook’s Tour which describes his travels around the world searching for the perfect meal. He is the author of seven books and is currently the executive chef at brasserie Les Halles in New York.

Successful Branding

Let us not forget Emeril Lagasse, the one chef that has inspired other chefs to create their own brand. Known for his highly entertaining Food Network show, Emeril Live and his signature line, “Bam!,” Emeril has created an empire that includes 10 fine-dining restaurants, 10 cookbooks, 3 TV programs, kitchenware and a line of gourmet sauces. Perhaps the biggest news came last February when Lagasse sold his non-restaurant holdings to Martha Stewart Omnimedia for $50 million

If you would like to read more from The Restaurant Blogger, check out a couple of his more his popular posts: top 10 restaurant startup mistakes and the truth behind tips.

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Dividend Growth Investor August 25, 2008, 11:04 am

    My favorite Google story is about their Chef Charlie Ayers , employee # 56, who was worth around 26 million..

    http://labnol.blogspot.com/2007/10/charlie-ayers-ex-google-chef-who-is.html

  • Bruce August 25, 2008, 11:28 am

    Can a chef be a $B?

  • FT FrugalTrader August 25, 2008, 11:38 am

    Bruce, i’m sure it’s possible if their company/brand recognition gets big enough!

  • Nate August 25, 2008, 12:05 pm

    Nice list. I’m suprised by some of the numbers though. Especially Batali’s 3 million.

    13 restaurants, 1 wine shop, 6 books, 3 TV Shows.

    That’s a lot of work for $3 million. After highschool I worked for a family in Calgary that owned a chain of 5 or 6 wine stores that made them well over $2 million a year.

    Also suprised that Jamie Oliver isn’t on the list. He seems to have captured the hearts of just about every middle aged woman that I know.

  • thepinkpeppercorn August 25, 2008, 12:15 pm

    Thanks for the post! It’s kind of peculiar that Forbes labeled these 10 as “chefs”, when Rachael Ray or Paula Deen never went to cooking school (although yes their success is from food knowledge, and being able to market it on tv and in magazines). It is a food category though, just interesting to note.

    None of these guys actually sit in the back of their kitchens preparing food anymore. (or did beyond their early young days). Which is fine by me, but really they didn’t make their money just by cooking, but marketing – through tv shows, writing books, buying and selling restaurants etc. Most restaurants are never actually run by the executive chef (they might make the menu)…but the executive chef is used as a brand, as Restaurant Blogger said. They might stop in every once in a while, but there is no way they are plating your food…MAYBE if you are food critic for the NYTimes!

  • The Restaurant Blogger August 25, 2008, 1:58 pm

    Hello. Just to comment on some your comments. It is possible that a chef could be a billionaire but highly unlikely. I agree with Frugal Trader, that if the corporation/brand grows large enough, it is possible. However, in the restaurant business there are tremendous expenses and many of the top restaurants earn between 19%-27% profit margin. Therefore, it would require a multitude of restaurants along with a combination of other food related products. There is no doubt a chef’s empire can be valued as a billion dollar corporation, but to actually achieve a billion in earnings is slim.

    This also ties in with Nate’s comment to chefs like Mario Batali. I agree, the number of hours Batali has to put in to control 13 restaurants, 1 wine shop and all the other products he owns is crazy. On the other hand, there are few chefs that have 100% ownership in the company. Several have to seek an investment group for startup or for expansion. It is common for chefs to only own 15% to 30% of their empire. The rest goes to the investment group. To have a sense of ownership and to be able to be recognized worldwide is enough for most chefs. Many chefs will admit they only know how to cook and they lack business skills. By obtaining an investment group, management skills are provided. Unfortunately not all investment groups have restaurant experience. I am not sure how much Batali owns, but I am guessing he doesn’t own all of it.

    In response to Jamie Oliver: He is estimated to be earning over $1 million but not as much as to be in the top 10. This is surprising news since he is perhaps the biggest celebrity in the UK and I believe he has sold the most cookbooks.

    Thanks for showing interest in the post.

  • Jessica August 25, 2008, 4:11 pm

    Great post. Mario Batali was the speaker at my college graduation and pretty much told us his story after college. I may be mistaken, but I believe that he said he had studied economics while at my school and later became a chef. I thought his story was really entertaining and inspiring to my graduating class.

  • The Financial Blogger August 25, 2008, 7:15 pm

    Where and Jared from Subway, Remy from Ratatouille and Ronald McDonald? ;-)

    Seriously, I am surprised to see that many M$ chef!

  • thepinkpeppercorn August 25, 2008, 10:21 pm

    Batali didn’t finish anything school wise. His partner Joe Bastianich is the brains of the operations. He was a broker on Wall St. for a bit, decided he hated it, then went to his family roots of the restaurant industry. It also sounds to me (from Bill Buford’s book Heat) that it is amazing Batali has any money at all! He is a party nut (or at least has been for the vast majority of his life).

    The chef’s also aren’t always the financial backer’s of the places, so I guess the numbers aren’t as high as we might suspect because of their fame. Anthony Bourdain certainly hasn’t spent the majority of his life concerned about his RRSP’s or 401k, but enjoying life carefree. Or at least you would never think this from reading his books.

    Maybe Jamie Oliver has money tied up in debts so it never looks like he owns anything, London is awfully expensive! He could be using all his equity to pay for more restaurants etc. Who knows. I just thought he wasn’t on the list because it says chef’s who have “joined” the millionaires club, but I figured he was on the list before.

  • Lazy Man and Money August 26, 2008, 3:51 pm

    If Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant at the London in LA is any indication, he’ll be bankrupt by this time next year.

  • Chris August 26, 2008, 7:52 pm

    Top Chef is shown on Bravo!, not Food Network.

  • The Restaurant Blogger August 26, 2008, 9:27 pm

    Hi Chris, Top Chef is actually shown on the Food Network Canada for us here. I noticed the shows are not the same as in Food Network USA. However, I know it started on Bravo.

  • ess January 12, 2009, 6:03 pm

    the yougest chef with 3 michelin stars is not ducasse, was Max Alajmo, italian chef, that was 28 when achivies the third star…

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