Friday, October 2, 2009

Rock-Star Chefs

This amazes me. My own infatuation with food shows has ended, and I am even getting tired of Bourdain, a thought which three years ago would have been heresy. Nonetheless, I still watch Bourdain and Zimmern. But this is incredible.

Live performance is a booming business for celebrity chefs, who themselves are a thriving niche of the entertainment world, straddling television, publishing and retail and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

It never occurred to me that there are concerts where the performers cook food.

Fans see live performances as a way to cement relationships that are already fairly intense: Many celebrity chefs are on television several times a day and connect to their audiences through their Web sites, blogs, books and branded food products. For some fans, the live events are primarily a chance to see up close a personality they've watched on TV for years. Most of the cooking demonstrations don't even offer audience members a taste of the food.

No food? Seems akin to going to a Springsteen concert and not hearing music.

Lisa Hechesky, a 36-year-old library associate in Nitro, W.Va., has spent more than $1,000 on hotel stays and tickets to see chef Alton Brown perform six times. Mr. Brown is the host of the Food Network's food-science show, "Good Eats," and the commentator on "Iron Chef America." Each August for the past three years, Ms. Hechesky has gone to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., and paid about $300 for a package that includes a night's stay in the hotel and a cooking demonstration by Mr. Brown. At the most recent show, Mr. Brown demonstrated how to make a smoker out of a box, and made smoked trout.

Alton Brown? I turn the sound down when he comments.

In the coming months, chefs Jacques Pepin, Eric Ripert and Mr. Bourdain, along with Food Network personalities such as Emeril Lagasse, will perform in a three-act "Celebrity Chefs Series" in Miami. The show was developed by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, a venue that typically books performances by the Miami City Ballet and shows like "The Color Purple." Tickets cost $25 to $200, which buys a reception with the chefs and a taste of food made with their recipes but prepared by Johnson & Wales University culinary students and an instructor. The chefs' fees range from $35,000 to $50,000 per appearance, says the center's executive vice president, Scott Shiller.

The chefs don't cook? Springsteen having another singer do his songs?

Jacques Pepin, with Sissy Biggers, at the American Express Cook-Off in Aspen, Colo., last summer.

Ms. Deen is among the biggest stars on the live performing circuit. Deeana Healy, of Monte Sereno, Calif., paid about $2,000 last year to go on "Paula Cookin' at Sea," a cruise to Alaska organized by Greenville, S.C., travel agency CruiseOne. Ms. Healy's special wristband allowed her into areas of the ship where Ms. Deen attended cocktail parties, spoke on stage and signed cookbooks. Ms. Deen did little cooking during a demonstration, handing off the work to an assistant, Ms. Healy says, but adds that she didn't mind because she was there for Ms. Deen's personality, not a cooking course.

Ms. Deen says she often hands off the cooking to her husband or someone else on the stage so she can focus on having fun with the audience. "They can turn on the TV at least three times a day and watch me cook," she says.

Since getting to know Ms. Deen and her family on the cruise, "my heart aches when I watch [Ms. Deen's] show," Ms. Healy says. "I feel like I'm watching family."

Family? Ridiculous. Someone has a big, empty hole in her life.

Gina and Patrick Neely at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Convention Center in Nashville.

Mr. Fieri's tour will start Nov. 17 in Lowell, Mass., and end a month later in Las Vegas. Average tickets will cost $35 to $40, though $250 buys a seat on stage and tastes of the food Mr. Fieri cooks. Ms. Bernstein says the agency is working with other celebrity chef clients to find time for them to go on tour.

Last week, as Mr. Fieri gave a cooking demonstration at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y., a fan threw a bra onto the stage. "I looked around and saw that the crowd went wild and I thought, 'Wow. This is rock 'n' roll,' " Mr. Fieri says.

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