February 27, 2018

The rise of Chef-Influencers: It’s more than just cooking skills

Certain chefs have always risen to the very top of the profession, guiding major culinary trends and attracting supporters who follow them closely. From Auguste Escoffier codifying classic French recipes and modernizing the profession to current celebrity chefs and bakers like Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi, there are some in the cooking world who have an outsized impact.

Chef-influencers will continue to shape the industry for some time to come, in terms of developments seen only in the back of house as well as in plenty of customer-facing situations. Boulder culinary school students should learn what sets these chefs apart from the pack as they continue their professional journeys.

Chef topping pasta dish with cheese in kitchen.Chef influencers have a major impact on fellow professionals and customers alike.

Influencers outside the kitchen

Some celebrities in the culinary world aren’t among the most elite worldwide in terms of skills. However, few if any fall below the level of competent, if not significantly above average. How do these well-known chefs manage to attract so much attention and influence customers and cooks alike if they’re simply very good instead of all-time greats? Opportunity, personality and presentation all play a role.

Consider the much-maligned Guy Fieri, who attracts a lot of backlash from certain chefs and diners but has built a successful empire that stretches from branded restaurants to TV and print projects. Fieri’s background involves lots of close interaction with food stretching back to his childhood days, but he’s focused much more on restaurant management and concept development than becoming a Michelin-starred chef. It’s worth noting that he has his bona-fides in the kitchen, though. As Success magazine pointed out, his knife skills are exceptional.

His success has a lot to do with tapping into widespread feelings about food and making eating out fun and less intimidating. His menus and programs emphasize food that isn’t pretentious or hard for someone who may not regularly eat at fine-dining restaurants to understand. Similarly, his personality is unfailingly positive, open and welcoming. Even if certain dishes seem excessive or unrefined to some critics, they appeal to and influence a broad swath of diners, and his power shows few signs of waning in the near future.

On the other side of the coin is someone who may have a more positive reputation among chefs and culinary students than Fieri: Anthony Bourdain. Well-regarded for his aptitude as a chef, skilled writing about the restaurant industry and many TV programs, Bourdain gained acclaim for exposing viewers to foods and cultures from around the globe. It’s interesting to note that Bourdain is even less directly involved with kitchen work than Fieri. He has relationships with restaurants he helmed in the past, but has not spent much time developing menus or leading lunch or dinner services in recent years.

Of course, there are also the foodie influencers on Instagram and other social media platforms. Although not always chefs or even involved professionally in the restaurant industry, the most popular ones can make or break a trend or a restaurant. And while there may sometimes be too much polish and not enough substance when it comes to these social media celebrities, as Eater pointed out, their ability to reach others and impact their behavior is undeniable.

What do Bourdain, Fieri and the innumerable social media influencers all have in common? A personal brand that attracts others and creates a following, whether it comes from pithy commentary, dishes slathered in donkey sauce or picture-perfect photos and commentary. The influence stems not just from skill in the kitchen, but the ability to build positive connections.