The Art of Winning in South Beach

At the recent South Beach Wine and Food Festival hosted by the Food Network, several famous chefs sat down to discuss fame and the success that came to them following cooking competition wins. It became apparent during the discussion that though there is a huge upside to fame, it’s not all a bed of roses.

Sitting on the panel, moderated by Iron Chef Bobby Flay, were:

Richard Blais, last year’s winner of Bravo’s Top Chef: All-Stars and the owner of Flip Burger Boutique and a consulting company TrailBlais in Atlanta.

Stephanie Izard, the winner of Bravo’s Top Chef (Season 4) and the chef/owner of The Girl and the Goat in Chicago.

Marc Forgione, the winner of The Next Iron Chef (Season 3) and the chef/owner of Marc Forgione restaurant in New York City. Restaurant Hospitality declared him a Rising Star in 2008.

Geoffrey Zakarian, the winner of last year’s Next Iron Chef competition, a judge on the Food Network’s cooking show, Chopped, and owner of several restaurants including The Lambs Club in New York City and Tudor House in Miami.

Michael Symon (pictured right), the first winner of The Next Iron Chef competition and the host of ABC’s cooking show, The Chew. He owns several restaurants, including his flagship, Lola, in Cleveland, and a growing chain of burger joints called B-Spot. He is a 1997 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star.

Jonathan Waxman, the elder statesman of the group and a revered pioneer of California cuisine. He was the only member of the panel not to win a competition, though he drew considerably attention placing fourth during the 2010 Top Chef: Master’s competition. He is the chef/owner of Barbuto in New York City.

Flay first posed a hypothetical question to Zacharian: If you were guaranteed success either on television or in your restaurants, what would you choose? Without hesitation, Zacharian said “television.” After winning The Next Iron Chef, he added, many people told him that they didn’t even know he could cook. Winning the competition brought so much attention and changed so many perceptions about who Zacharian is. “Television is a powerful medium,” he said.

How do you feel about the fame that the Food Network has brought to chefs, Flay asked of Waxman? “When I first saw Bobby (Flay) on television I was incredibly proud,” he told the audience. “He was not just a TV chef, but one with real cooking skills,” said Waxman. “Look at today’s panel; everyone here is not just a television personality, but they’re also great, diverse chefs.”

What kind of feedback did you get from only placing fourth on Top Chef: Masters, asked Flay? Waxman pointed out that his business increased by 35 percent following the show. Needless to say, sometimes just the exposure one gets on television is enough to propel success.

A similar question was asked of Forgione, who has long lived in the shadow of his legendary father, Larry Forgione, who helped put American cuisine on the map decades ago. “I still have the same staff I had before television,” he said, though he is now a spokesman for the drink, Pom Wonderful, and is in the process of opening a new restaurant in Atlantic City. He pointed out that he made very little money operating his restaurant before his Food Network appearance. “For me, fame has made it easier to pay my bills.”

Izard pointed out that Bravo approached her to compete on Top Chef, but once she won it was important to her to open a restaurant “so people know I’m for real.” Winning the show put pressure on her to prove herself, she added. And that she has, and with the huge success of Girl and the Goat, she said the opportunities now exist for a second restaurant and, perhaps, more TV.

Flay, who has been on television longer than most, said if a chef’s ego gets too big, one simply has to go on the internet for a wake-up call. You’ll find plenty of critics online at Yelp and elsewhere. Forgione interjected that the fame will get customers into your restaurant once, but good cooking is what keeps them coming back.

Flay reiterated the point by saying that if you’re a chef, cooking must come first, and media concerns come second. But in the case of Symon, he left his Cleveland-based restaurants to live in New York and appear daily on The Chew. How can he operate his Cleveland-based restaurants effectively while living in New York? Flay asked.

Symon said he would never have agreed to do the television show if he didn’t have a solid infrastructure in place back home. He pointed out that he has eight restaurants, 15 people in his corporate office and another 400-plus employees and they’ve all been trained to properly run the restaurants in his absence. Symon also noted that from this point forward, most of the growth of his company will come from expansion of his burger concept, which is far less complicated to run then his larger restaurants.

“The biggest misconception people have is that chefs cook in their restaurant every day. But I haven’t cooked on the line in 13 years,” he explained. Cooking isn’t a luxury chefs have when they have to run a big business, he said. “The best chefs are the best teachers,” he noted.

You better be good at delegating and inspiring, added Flay. As your business grows, you can’t do it all and you need the help of your people to be successful, he said.

Izard said that while the success is good, one can be overwhelmed by it. The saving grace is the ability to call peers who have experienced the same dizzying pace that fame brings.

A key, says Flay, is to know when to say “No” to the offers. Not everything is right for you. With that said, Symon suggested that if a brand fits your personality, then go for it in terms of endorsements.

An audience member questioned whether Rachel Ray endorsing dog food was a smart move. Zacharian and others pointed out that food and restaurants are now every bit as much a lifestyle choice as fashion. In Rachel’s case, said Flay, her brand is one that reflects many lifestyle choices, so endorsing dog food is a good fit.

In the case of Forgione, endorsing a pomegranate drink makes perfect sense, he added. “And it helps me pay the bills,” said Forgione.

One thing that became clear throughout the discussion was that the fame did not necessarily translate to huge financial success. It certainly opened doors that lead to the path of riches, but a lot of hard work and luck is necessary to ensure that level of success.

But money should not be the end goal, most agreed. Both Symon and Blais said their end game is to teach “regular” people to cook better. Zacharian’s was a bit less inspirational and more emotional. “I would love someday to go to Paris to open a restaurant.” For Waxman, he said he lives to hear his customers say they had a great meal at Barbuto.

Another goal? To be left alone in the bathroom. “I was at a urinal and a guy came up to me and slapped me on the back,” Waxman said incredulously. Forgione topped that: “I had a guy come up next to me at a urinal and say to me, “I really like your stuff!” Indeed.