Tiffani Faison was the runner-up on the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2006. Jason Santos and his blue hair gained fame on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2010. The following year, Jamie Bissonnette appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped.” These are just three of the approximately two dozen local chefs who have appeared on competitive cooking shows. Some have done well on-screen. Some not so much. We watch them, and then we move on to the next season. But what, for them, has been the lasting impact of TV fame on careers, restaurants, and revenues?
It is significant, says Santos, who was chef at Somerville’s Gargoyles on the Square when he took second place on “Hell’s Kitchen.” He realized right away that food wasn’t the primary concern of the show. “I’m not shy,” he says. “I made for good TV.”
After filming, he returned to Gargoyles. When the show aired, he says, “we literally doubled our sales.” Viewing parties each week were sold out. But he didn’t have an ownership stake in the restaurant. He had always wanted his own place, and the TV exposure “sped up the process,” he says. Santos opened Blue Inc. in mid-2011 and closed it in 2014; he now co-owns Abby Lane, Back Bay Harry’s, and the soon-to-open Buttermilk & Bourbon.
Santos, 40, followed his “Hell’s Kitchen” success with numerous public and TV appearances. “If you’re going to pay me $10,000 to show up, I’m going to show up,” he says. “I was capitalizing on the celebrity I had,” which has included more than a dozen appearances on CBS’s “The Talk.” Through licensing agreements — “$60,000 upfront plus royalties,” he says — he’ll soon be marketing a line of sodas, sauces, and herb kits at mass merchandisers including Walmart, Target, and Home Depot.
But the exposure can also be overwhelming. Faison’s “Top Chef“ appearance brought publicity she wasn’t prepared for. “You go from oblivion to fully recognizable on the street,” she says. She fled Las Vegas, where she was working, and “ran to the farthest island away,” which was Nantucket. She bounced around, working at Nantucket’s Straight Wharf and Boston’s O Ya and Rocca Kitchen & Bar. “I felt my name had some currency and I didn’t want to waste it,” she says.
The 39-year-old redhead opened Sweet Cheeks at the end of 2011 and Tiger Mama last December, both on the same block in the Fenway area. She says investors and her business partners were attracted to the restaurants’ merits, not her TV experience. “TV exposure definitely gets people in the doors. They’ll come once,” says Faison, who has also been a contender on “Top Chef All-Stars” and “Top Chef Duels.” “Then it’s the food, service, and experience that will make them want to come back.”
“Top Chef” served as a launching pad for Carl Dooley. The former Craigie on Main chef parlayed his top-four finish on Season 13, which aired from the end of 2015 through early 2016, into a new role: chef of The Table in Cambridge. “After filming, I thought, I have this wild card in my pocket,” says the 31-year-old. “I can leverage this opportunity to find exactly what I was looking for.” That ended up being an intimate 20-seat, open-kitchen restaurant with Season to Taste catering company owner Robert Harris.
The Table offers a “super-focused” four-course prix fixe menu. “If not for the ‘Top Chef’ exposure, we wouldn’t have had the confidence that people were going to come in and check us out,” says Dooley.
Meanwhile, Karen Akunowicz, executive chef of Myers & Chang, was part of the same “Top Chef” season as Dooley. “I had a really positive experience,” she says. “But it wasn’t that I needed this to make my career.” Before leaving for two months of filming, Akunowicz became a partner in the South End Asian restaurant, and she and co-owner Joanne Chang had started working on a Myers & Chang cookbook (to be released next fall). Out-of-town guests still acknowledge her. “The kindness and generosity of spirit from people all over the country has been wild,” she says.
Being well situated before competing reduces the pressure. When Bissonnette won his battle on Food Network’s “Chopped” (earning a $10,000 prize), he already co-owned Boston’s Toro and Coppa and didn’t actively pursue publicity. “I didn’t have the bandwidth to do much else,” says the chef. Since then, he has participated in other challenges and cooking segments, written “The New Charcuterie Cookbook,” and opened three more restaurants. “I still get casting calls,” he says. “It’s always nice to feel wanted.”
After he was on “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2009, Andy Husbands declined most invitations that came his way. “I was already set,” he says, referring to his restaurants Tremont 647 (which turned 20 this year) and Sister Sorel, cookbooks, and place on the IQUE barbecue team. This summer, he opened the Smoke Shop in Cambridge. On the show, he says, “I didn’t do great, I didn’t do awful. It didn’t help, it didn’t hurt.” Remembering Gordon Ramsay’s tirades, he says, “They like controversy.”
Another local chef who took some heat on “Hell’s Kitchen” was Brendan Pelley. “I went into reality TV knowing it wasn’t going to make my career,” says the former chef of Zebra’s Bistro and Wine Bar in Medfield. When the show aired in spring 2015, he says, “we had viewing parties; the place was packed. Food sales definitely did increase.”
Pelley opened Greek pop-up Pelekasis at South End “culinary incubator” Wink & Nod in January; it finished its run at the end of July. “I don’t think being on TV should get you anything,” says the Chelmsford native. He capitalized on the press he received, but doesn’t feel he got the Wink & Nod gig as a result. “It never hurts to say I was on a TV show, but none of that matters if you can’t back it up with your cooking.”
Mary Dumont, who is opening a new restaurant, Cultivar, in the Ames Hotel, makes the same point. “What matters is what you’re doing day to day in that restaurant.” The chef, who worked at Cambridge’s Harvest for eight years, competed on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” in 2007 and “The Next Iron Chef” in 2010. After the latter show aired, she says, “there was a significant bump in business.” Yet the press can disappear quickly. “It depends on how you market yourself,” she says.
For some, there can also be a dark side to TV chef fame. Stacy Cogswell says she went into hiding after Padma Lakshmi of “Top Chef” uttered the dreaded “please pack your knives and go” midway through filming the Boston season in 2014. Being the group’s only Boston chef (she worked at Brookline’s Regal Beagle at the time), she says, “I was embarrassed about my performance and felt that it ruined my career.”
But there was a positive, says the Wareham native: gaining a contract to write “The New New England Cookbook,” which came out last fall. Then chef Rachel Klein, who competed on “Chopped” about five years ago, convinced Cogswell to work for her at
Liquid Art House. “It was a way to re-find myself with some really great moral support,” says 35-year-old Cogswell. And the happy ending: The two chefs just opened RFK Kitchen in Needham.
Because, ultimately, being a successful chef has very little to do with on-screen appearances. “I’m great under pressure in a restaurant,” Cogswell says. “But I was never meant to be a TV personality.”