The Fame Game
Originally published in MillionaireAsia, Summer 2012
It’s becoming a common sight in our vibrant city: a major new restaurant opens up in an expensive part of town, its 10,000-square meter size and stunning menu bringing in foodies from all across town. And above the restaurant sign is one single name: a celebrity chef endorsement..
But from established names like Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse, to such up-and-coming homegrown stars as Matt Abergel and Jeremy Biasiol, the one question on most diners’ minds is, how much value does a celebrity chef really add to a restaurant?
The benefits of celebrity chefs in our city are obvious: their restaurants create healthy competition, leading others to work harder and thus improve the overall quality of Hong Kong’s burgeoning dining scene.
“We live in a competitive environment,” says Sandeep Sekhri, managing director of Dining Concepts, who count Mario Batali and Michael White amongst its star chefs. “For us, it’s like a fashion brand bringing in Prada or Gucci – people come because it’s consistent with food, service and atmosphere. And on the business side, it helps me get the best real estate in town.”
David Collas agrees; as the executive assistant manager of F&B at the Mandarin Oriental, he regularly justifies Pierre Gagnaire’s flagship Hong Kong restaurant. “It offers consistency from a guest’s point of view – his name is a guarantee, so you know it’s of the highest quality,” he says. “For the Mandarin, he adds more business and more revenue. If you have the right chef, you’ll most likely succeed. If you have a chef that isn’t a celebrity, you’ll have to work that much harder. It’s a fast-track in terms of business and success.”
The profit potential might be clear from the perspective of the hotel and restaurant groups, but many diners are beginning to be wary of the celebrity’s lack of presence, and more often than not these days, it’s the apprentices rather than the chef who man the kitchen.
“They’ve become celebrities for reason – they run very successful empires of restaurants and can’t always be here,” says Sekhri. “But in the kitchen are their protégés; these are people who’ve worked for them for many years.”
While it’s hard to work out exactly how much an absentee celebrity chef contributes in terms of menu creation and overall design, those deeply involved say it’s more than just a name in lights, with the famed status being due to their tireless work ethic rather than their ego.
Jeremy Biasiol of The Mirror restaurant worked for over a decade under Alain Ducasse’s tutelage. “Ducasse worked even harder than anyone I know, because others are actively looking for mistakes with celebrity chefs,” he says. “Regular chefs can make mistakes and people will forgive them, but when you have your name on a $5,000 meal and it’s a disaster, they’ll never forgive you.”
Similarly, Collas says Gagniere visits Hong Kong three times a year for 10 days at a time – he spends much of it creating menus, being responsible for everything that’s served, and ensuring the consistent quality of both the frontline and backline of the restaurant.
For those celebrity chefs not directly backed by a major hotel or restaurant group, the pressures of the daily kitchen life are often more challenging. “You have to be on top of it,” says Umberto Bombana of Otto e Mezzo Bombana. “I’m in the kitchen all the time, 12 hours a day. You have to be involved at all times to keep the reputation up. The food, the service and the atmosphere is what matters.”
But the lack of presence is becoming a major factor for diners, and a new type of homegrown celebrity chef is emerging: smaller, more personal restaurants where the chef can always be found in the kitchen. The Mirror is one such place, with Biasiol’s experience under Ducasse gaining him a Michelin star earlier this year.
“What I hear the most from customers is that they’re tired of going to restaurants where the chef isn’t there,” he says. “I’m always in the restaurant, and it’s almost essential as an independent restaurant for them to see me as a celebrity chef – it’s important for bringing people in to know that I’m the chef.”
Matt Abergel’s Yardbird and David Lai’s On Lot 10, both in Sheung Wan, are other such restaurants – although the empire-like approach to most celebrity chefs, make them prefer you didn’t address them as such.
“If a celebrity is important to a restaurant, it should be personal – it should represent them as a person,” says Abergel, formerly of Masa in New York. “I try to avoid the celebrity, but it’s inevitable that people will notice I’m responsible. It’s not what people should be attracted to – I want people to come here for the food, the service and the atmosphere.”
Lai agrees, and feels that while there are advantages to embracing fame, it’s much more important to succeed on your own merits – especially in a perceptive city such as ours. “Celebrity chefs are a stamp of approval and the name certainly helps,” he says. “But at the same time, Hong Kong has grown more sophisticated than to just follow blindly.”