The allure of the celebrity chef only seems to be growing in popularity thanks to the Food Network, Cooking Channel, and the rise in reality competition shows. Love it, or love to hate it, celebrity chefs have shaped our modern cooking culture. While some chefs started in the kitchen from a young age, others progressed into the industry through a more winding path. Some chefs are late bloomers, such as Alton Brown making the switch to the kitchen after he abandoned a successful film career. Iconic chef Julia Child and lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart both discovered a passion for culinary pursuits well after a range of decidedly different careers.
Taking a less traditional route, the rise of cooking personalities opened the doors to self-taught and innovative entrepreneurs with a more approachable take. Cooking personalities Sara Lee, Rachel Ray, and Ree Drummond all turned private enterprises into bankable television and publishing opportunities. Working as a chef requires dedication and passion for an industry that can be unforgiving. Pivoting into a new career later in life is just one more reason to admire the drive of these culinary powerhouses.
Celebrity chef Alton Brown started in film production before heading to the kitchen
Alton Brown is best known as a staple host on Food Network. He starred on hit shows including Good Eats, Iron Chef, and Food Network Star. Cooking didn’t start off as a clear career path, however. Brown told the Bitter Southerner when he graduated high school at 16, his school experience felt more like survival instead of a setup for success. He went on to study film at the University of Georgia and eventually relocated to Atlanta directing TV commercials. During that time, he got the idea to create a cooking show that combined knowledge of culinary icon Julia Child, an explanation of how things work like the Mr. Wizard science show, and the humor of Monty Python.
The Food Network chef quit his established career in film at the age of 34. He enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, known for its onsite restaurants run by students. Brown managed to embrace the triple threat with the creation of Good Eats, a cooking show blending history, humor, and science. The Good Eats pilot aired on Chicago’s WTTW in 1998 before being picked up by the Food Network one year later.
Now, Brown is synonymous with cooking due to his approach to food, offering scientific and technical details without alienating the audience. His unexpected switch to culinary school led to a successful career as a celebrity chef, best-selling author, and Food Network star.
Ina Garten left a career as a nuclear budget analyst
The Barefoot Contessa cooking show is beloved by viewers around the world thanks to its Emmy Award-winning host, Ina Garten. The celebrity chef is proof that it’s never too late to change careers. The Muse reports Garten started out in civil service, working at the White House during the Ford and Carter administrations. Garten progressed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a budget analyst on nuclear energy policy. She told The New York Times the job just wasn’t as fulfilling as the dinner parties she held on the weekends.
Garten left the White House at 30-years-old after she and her husband flipped a few houses in posh D.C. neighborhoods. She then invested in a storefront called "The Barefoot Contessa" in Westhampton Beach, New York, named for an Ava Gardner film. Garten kept the name and grew the modest store into a prosperous gourmet food and catering business. According to Vox, the store closed in 2004, but the Barefoot Contessa lives on thanks to Garten’s hit show on Food Network and many best-selling cookbooks.
Martha Stewart worked as a model and on Wall Street
Martha Stewart defined the term celebrity chef for a generation thanks to her hit television show and "everyday living" empire. Stewart’s meticulous recipes, gardening tips, and entertaining projects made her a household name. Her first gig started at the age of 13 when Stewart modeled in fashion shows, television, and print ads. She then majored in history and architectural history at Barnard College before working on Wall Street.
Stewart attributes her success as an entrepreneur and lifestyle brand to her first position as a stockbroker. While on Wall Street, she learned what it takes to build a meaningful business and a real enterprise. Leaving her role on Wall Street, Stewart created a catering business that led her into a $1-million business and a best-selling book, Entertaining. By 1990, the self-proclaimed "late bloomer" had written four more books and moved onto her next big idea. The 49-year-old mother and divorcée, published the first issue of Martha Stewart Living. The rest, as they love to say, is history.
Celebrity chef Julia Child got her start as a typist and copywriter
French cooking became an enjoyable and accessible standard in American kitchens thanks to Julia Child. Chefs of all varieties welcomed Child into their homes through her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the iconic cooking show, The French Chef. The exceptionally tall and adventurous celebrity chef started out with slightly different intentions. Child went to Smith College with the goal to become a writer. Her manuscripts, however, got rejected by The New Yorker. She moved to New York after graduation, where she worked in advertising for a respected home furnishings company, however, Child eventually got fired for "insubordination." Nonetheless, she persisted.
Child went on to volunteer during WWII traveling the world for a government intelligence agency (not bad for a comeback, right?). In Sri Lanka, she met her future husband Paul Child who eventually moved them to France. It was in Paris, that she got hooked on the cuisine and made the decision to attended the world-famous Cordon Bleu culinary school. Following her six months in cooking school, she collaborated with fellow students to form their own cooking school and developed the culinary tome. Child’s classic cookbook was a major success and remained on bestselling lists for five straight years after its publication.
Heston Blumenthal worked as a repo man and credit controller
Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is renowned for his avant-garde style and just so happens to be the owner of one of the most expensive restaurants in Britain — The Fat Duck. Due to his efforts, he’s been awarded three Michelin Stars, and his restaurant was the first to elevate the use of liquid nitrogen on its menu items. Blumenthal’s acclaimed restaurant became famous for specialties such as bacon-egg ice cream and seafood served with iPods playing the sounds of the sea. He’s changed a lot of minds on what can be done with food and science, which makes it even more surprising that the chef behind the title of "The World’s Best Restaurant in 2005," is also self-taught.
Blumenthal fell for restaurants at the age of 16. He worked briefly at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir but would work another 10 years before being taken seriously in his culinary career. He taught himself French cuisine after day jobs such as a repo man and credit controller. Today, Blumenthals’ culinary skills have allowed him to work with food historians, perfumists, food physiologists, and biochemists to craft his experimental creations.
Rick Bayless acted in theater productions before becoming a celebrity chef
Rick Bayless is famous for his 1980s cooking show Cooking Mexican, and PBS show Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Eater found the chef also has a side career in theater, stint as an award-winning dancer, and daily practice of performing the splits. Bayless is a firm believer in the link between art and food and his dinner parties are known for pairing live music along with the meal.
This comes as no surprise, considering that performance theater turned out to be his first passion, and Bayless continues to perform onstage. The chef’s 2012 dinner show, Cascabel, garnered a positive review from the Chicago Tribune. Even The New York Times reviewed his performance thanks to the three-course dinner he conceived for the show.
Despite some public missteps, Bayless embraces performance both on and off the stage. So, how did a white man from Oklahoma end up running a Mexican food empire? His choice of cuisine has been debated at length as either appropriation or appreciation. The culinary choice makes more sense when you realize Bayless studied Spanish and Latin American culture in college and went on to pursue a doctorate in anthropological linguistics. Chicago Magazine, reports his first chef position started at Lopez, a respected Southwestern and Mexican-focused restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. He later opened Frontera Grill and became famous for using Mexican culinary traditions in the U.S. fine-dining scene.
Nigella Lawson wrote book reviews and worked in publishing before her debut as a celebrity chef
Nigella Lawson is a celebrated chef widely known for her popular cooking show series Nigella Bites that began airing in 1999. She’s also written eight bestselling books. She released her first cookbook, How to Eat, in 1998 and How to Be a Domestic Goddess only two years later. Her impressive publishing accomplishments should be no surprise since she started out in the media world.
Early into her career, Lawson wrote book reviews for the British magazine The Spectator, before going on to serve as the deputy literary editor for the massive British newspaper The Sunday Times. As part of an illustrious freelance journalism career that followed, she started a restaurant column for The Spectator, wrote a food column for British Vogue, and contributed a bi-monthly food column for The New York Times.
The New York Times reports her career took on a new bent with her first television series, Nigella Bites, which debuted in Britain. Lawson admits the term "domestic goddess" was meant as a jest, but the persona stuck for the celebrity chef. She went on to host Nigella Feasts on the Food Network, as well as the competition show The Taste with Anthony Bourdain. Never straying completely from her publishing roots, Lawson released a 20th-anniversary issue of the book that launched her culinary career, How to Eat, accompanied by a new audiobook version read by the beloved author.
Rachel Ray worked at Macy’s candy counter before she became a celebrity chef
Rachel Ray is best known as a mainstay in the new era of approachable Food Network personalities. Her funny, warm and high-energy approach to cooking gave her endurance on the screen branching out into travel shows, multiple spin-offs of her iconic 30-Minute Meals cooking series, and a daytime talk show. Ray grew up around food thanks to her mother, who crafted meals at home and managed a restaurant. The Ray family also owned multiple restaurants in the tourist haven, Cape Cod.
Instead of following the hospitality route, Ray moved to New York City in her 20s and worked at the candy counter at Macy’s. She eventually moved on to the fresh foods department, which led her to take a store manager and buyer position with the gourmet marketplace, Agata & Valentina.
Ray eventually moved upstate to work in other upscale markets where she acted as a "chef," demonstrating her "30-Minute Mediterranean Meals" cooking class to boost grocery sales. Those classes gained a following and caught the attention of the local CBS station. Soon enough, Ray found herself in the role of a burgeoning chef and doing a weekly "30-Minute Meals" segment for the evening news. After the segment won two regional Emmys in its first year, the entrepreneur parlayed the concept into a cookbook, her own show, and a cooking empire.
The Pioneer Woman almost went to law school before starting her blog
Food Network star Ree Drummond is known for her Pioneer Woman blog turned show, featuring her ranching homestead in the Midwest. She’s also famous for featuring her fourth-generation rancher husband and four children in her steak-and-potatoes lifestyle (she actually featured steak as The Pioneer Woman’s first recipe). The Drummonds live on over 430,000 acres of land and are one of the top 25 largest landowners in the country. Hardly roughing it out on the plains.
Although she’s synonymous with Oklahoma and country life, Drummond spent several years in Southern California pursuing degrees in journalism and gerontology (the study of old age) at USC. The TV chef had initially planned to attend law school in Chicago, but kicked those plans to the curb after meeting her self-proclaimed "Marlboro Man" husband, and returned to her home state. Capitalizing on the cattle ranch, the blog documenting her life and downhome recipes grew to a book deal. She then made a fateful appearance on Throwdown! With Bobby Flay before landing her own show in the Food Network in 2011.
Celebrity chef Melissa d’Arabian worked on a cruise ship and for Disney
Food Network personality Melissa d’Arabian is famous for her family-first cooking techniques, budget shopping, and affordable recipes. Her cooking show, Ten Dollar Dinners, is appreciated for its flavorful recipes aimed at feeding a family well. The popular cooking show designed with nuclear families in mind takes its cues from her New York Times best-selling cookbook with the same budget-friendly concept. Television has been a natural progression for this entertainer and business leader.
After studying political science in college, d’Arabian worked on a cruise ship as part of the onboard entertainment. She went on to earn her MBA at Georgetown University, which led to consulting work, and eventually, jobs in corporate finance and merchandise finance at Disney California and Euro Disney. After giving birth to four children, though, d’Arabian left her job to focus on raising her family. It would be a video about making budget-conscious yogurt at home that put d’Arabian’s recipes on the entertainment radar.
According to Risen Magazine, d’Arabian’s next step was as a reality contestant on The Next Food Network Star (an early iteration of The Food Network’s Food Network Star), an experience she said felt like a an extension of business school. The reality TV spot proved to be more than a fluke, of course, when she won season five and the network offered her a show.
Sandra Lee ran a $6 million DIY curtain business before landing on Food Network
Cooking personality Sandra Lee has shown she can basically do it all. She’s written 27 books. Her extensive philanthropy work supports healthy meals for children, Meals on Wheels, UNICEF, and Stand Up to Cancer. She also never intended to end up hawking her "semi-homemade" lifestyle.
Delish reports Lee dropped out of college and acted as a sales rep for stun guns and Black & Decker security systems at home and garden shows. The trade shows must have left an impression because she produced her own line of DIY curtain hardware named, Kurtain Kraft. The 27-year-old found near-instant success with the endeavor after using $50,000 to create an infomercial for her DIY curtains. Within nine months, Lee had raked in $6 million.
New York Magazine explained that Lee worked as a QVC host after expanding her brand following a "cash-flow crisis" from a wave of returns of her kits. She then focused on launching her Semi-Homemade show from the garage of her house. Lee aimed to cultivate a more tongue-in-cheek lifestyle that used bottom-shelf pantry items from her youth with approachable recipes for people without culinary training. Famously, Food Network courted the entrepreneur, but she wasn’t interested in a cooking show. She bartered to focus on tablescapes with some cooking thrown in. Semi-homemade went on to live in Food Network history, or infamy, depending on who you ask.
Colonel Sanders worked as a lawyer, gas station operator, and railroad worker
Colonel Harland Sanders, or better known as just Colonel Sanders, started what is today one of the best known fast-food franchises in the world. The image of the Colonel is familiar to many thanks to KFC’s branding, but the life of the man himself is typically less well-known. Due to his father’s untimely death, Sanders started taking care of his younger brother and sister at the age of 6. He worked many jobs over the years, including farmer, streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, and insurance salesman.
Sanders eventually ran a service station in Kentucky, at the age of 40, where he had the foresight to provide food for travelers. His fried chicken recipe grew in popularity, expanding operations to an adjacent restaurant to meet demand. The state’s Governor Ruby Laffoon loved the chicken so much that he even named Sanders an honorary Kentucky colonel. The late-bloomer business mogul was 62 when he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken, and would eventually build the operation to more than 600 locations — earning one nickel for every chicken the restaurant sold.
The hard work paid off when Sanders cashed in on the business by selling his stake in the company for $2 million in 1964, equating to around $8.5 million in 2020.