You May Not Know It, But You're a Star, Baby!

Is it possible that you restaurant folk have achieved rock-star status? You're getting there. When I began covering this industry 20 years ago the public liked you, but few thought of you or your industry as sexy. They do now.

Let me put this in perspective. When the Aspen Food & Wine Classic began 24 years ago, it attracted 300 attendees. In June, it will draw 5,000 people who will clamor to get a seat in one of several tents to see Food Network idols like Bobby Flay perform a cooking demo. The line afterward for autographs will be very, very long. By the way, the festival limits attendance to 5,000. Twice that many would sign up if given the chance.

I bring this up because of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal and because of all the television cooking competitions that have surfaced. The newspaper focused on the huge number of food festivals held around the country each year. Estimates put the number at around 10,000. Clearly, most of these events will not draw television chef celebrities, which means the public is infatuated with our growing food culture and the people who make it happen—you.

That brings me to all the television exposure the industry is getting. Of course, the Food Network demonstrated years ago that the public loves to watch television cooking shows and such. The ratings have attracted advertiser dollars and other networks that want a piece of the pie. The problem, at this point, is that some of the non-Food Network programming is embarrassing. Who can forget NBC's "The Restaurant," which featured Rocco DiSpirito's attempt to open a New York restaurant while the cameras watched? The ratings were decent, but it was like watching a bad accident.

And just last month, NBC crashed and burned again with another prime-time "reality" cooking show called "Celebrity Cooking Showdown." It was so awful that it was halted in the middle of its five-show run. Normally, the public would eat this sort of stuff alive, but the "Showdown," hosted by Alan Thicke, featured third and fourth tier "celebrities." When Roseanne Barr's ex, Tom Arnold, is your trump card, you're toast. Congress should pass a law that forbids NBC from airing another food-related show again. Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.

Nevertheless, Bravo's current reality cooking show, "Top Chef," is doing well in the ratings and it's giving the public a better idea of just how hard it is for you to make it look so easy. Fox's reality cooking show, "Hell's Kitchen," did very well in the ratings and will return again next month.

Let's not forget the Food Network's Rachael Ray, who is selling more cookbooks than the country's top authors and is poised to become the next Oprah Win-frey. She now has her own magazine and will debut a syndicated television talk show in the fall.

There's no doubt the public envies you and your profession. You have sex appeal. Stop laughing. How else can you explain why my 42-year-old friend left his high-paying engineering job to enroll in culinary school? When was the last time you saw someone leave their restaurant job to become an accountant? I rest my case.