The Twilight of the Celebrity Chef
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The opening of Bouchon in Beverly Hills nine years ago was a star-studded affair, with Pierce Brosnan, Don Johnson, and Jay Leno in attendance. Eater LA, the foodie website, gushed about chef Thomas Keller’s charcuterie and tartine—and the difficulty of getting a reservation. Keller, known for his French Laundry restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, cut the ribbon with the city’s then-mayor.
Today the space is vacant. The location closed in December following disagreements over tenant improvements and rent reductions between Keller and the city of Beverly Hills, which owns the building. “The circumstances no longer exist to operate a profitable restaurant,” Keller said in a statement.
His experience is hardly unique. The once-flourishing celebrity chef industry has seen dozens of restaurants backed by some of the top names in the business close over the past year. Some chefs were done in by rising rents, overexpansion, and a shift among foodies toward “authentic” fare that doesn’t depend on having a celebrity in the kitchen. Besides, with locations open for 10 years or more, some restaurants had just grown stale. “As with every other art form, the tastes and the popularity change,” says Shep Gordon, the agent who nurtured the careers of such celebrity chefs as Emeril Lagasse. “The fireworks can only last so long.”
The list of high-profile restaurant closures includes Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, which plans to shut down in London after 14 years, as well as Daniel Boulud’s eight-year-old DBGB in New York. Lagasse’s outpost in Orlando closed in July after 19 years. His Table 10 in Las Vegas served its last meal in December. Lagasse declined to comment. A Ramsay spokesperson says the chef will develop a new concept in the Maze space. A spokesman for Boulud said the closing of the Lower East Side eatery was “largely due to the neighborhood not evolving as quickly as we had hoped.”
Some chefs just took on too much. “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver closed 12 of his 37 U.K. establishments this year and found a new partner for his Australian business. A spokeswoman for Oliver said he still plans to open 10 locations this year and has a “thriving international business.”
It’s hard for star chefs to duplicate what they’ve done over multiple locations, according to Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant consultant based in New York. “At some point you’re going to hire the wrong chef, and you’re not there to supervise,” he says. “People expect to get the master’s touch, and they’re not getting it.” And as a chef’s globe-spanning web of restaurants grows, the chance of getting even a glimpse of the kitchen magician—a draw for some patrons—also fades.
Even broadcast exposure, which has brought so many cooks mainstream attention, hasn’t always helped. Food Network stars Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri closed their Midtown Manhattan restaurants in January, the latter after enduring withering reviews. (Flay hasn’t responded to requests for comment; Fieri declined to.) And ABC this year canceled The Chew, its daytime show whose celebrity chef hosts have included Michael Symon and Mario Batali.
Times are also tough at Las Vegas casinos, where celebrity chef-helmed restaurants once thrived. When the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort opened in 2010, it featured three restaurants from Washington-based chef José Andrés. While they’re still there, the resort is adding an upscale food court this year with six restaurants, including District Donuts from New Orleans and Hattie B’s Hot Chicken from Nashville. It’s an acknowledgment, says Chief Executive Officer Bill McBeath, that customers want more lower-priced, quick-service options.
Restaurant consultants also say many hotel deals were too financially lopsided to last, given the hefty license fees paid to some kitchen talent. “A chef-driven or restaurant-owner-driven restaurant in a hotel may make no money for the hotel and lots for the branded name, and the hotel quite likely had to foot the bill for most of—if not all of—the investment,” says consultant Michael Whiteman. “Deals … become far less generous.”
The Norwegian Bliss, the newest cruise ship from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., began sailing in May with no celebrity restaurants, the company having earlier ended relationships with Geoffrey Zakarian, whose Georgie in Beverly Hills closed in July, and with Iron Chef winner Jose Garces.
Garces’ Philadelphia-based restaurant group declared bankruptcy in May. In court filings, Garces said he borrowed most of the $5.5 million needed to open Amada in Battery Park City in April 2016. Its high monthly overhead and recurring losses strained the entire group. The Basque-themed restaurant closed in March, having never turned a profit. “We wanted to be in the New York market,” says Garces. “It was like anything; it comes with risk.” He says he’s merging his company with the owner of PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans houses and has opened a prototype for a fast-casual taqueria chain called Buena Onda.
The desire to be in high-cost, high-profile locations may have also done in Bouchon. Keller opened in Beverly Hills with more than 12,000 square feet on two floors, including a wine bar and outdoor dining terraces. His rent started at $106,000 a month, according to city documents.
Some eateries fell to the #MeToo movement. New Orleans restaurateur John Besh stepped down from his local chain, which included award winners Shaya and August, after allegations of sexual harassment. And after Batali was accused of harassment, Las Vegas Sands Corp. closed four of his restaurants at its Las Vegas and Singapore casinos this year. Neither Batali nor Besh responded to requests for comment.
While New York’s famed Les Halles drew many “pilgrims” because of its years-earlier association with the late TV chef Anthony Bourdain, says owner Philippe Lajaunie, it wasn’t enough to overcome other hurdles, including lawsuits and changing eating habits. Until 2015, his location in New York’s financial district was generating $5 million annually in sales, he says, with traders enjoying late-afternoon drinks and young people sitting down to dinner at 11 p.m. But in the first three months of 2017, the restaurant lost $80,000 on sales of $387,000, according to documents on file in its bankruptcy case. It closed five months later. —With Leslie Patton
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