Restaurant PR: Is the Fame Game Worth Playing?

Know the rules for getting restaurant PR without becoming a fool

Texas chef Otto Borsich appeared on the second season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2006, and even though he “packed his knives” and left early in the season, he says that years later, it’s still a great public relations piece.

Experiences like Borsich’s are part of the reason some young chefs aspire toward TV fame (drama notwithstanding). The spoils of fame seem clear: Just flash your pearly whites on camera while wearing your chef whites and you’re golden. 

“If someone tells you they were on one of those shows and they don’t think it was worth it, they’re not telling the truth,” says Herb Karlitz, president of New York’s Karlitz & Company, which creates and manages culinary events. 

That doesn’t mean Karlitz thinks the push toward an entertainment-centric culinary world is all good. Celebrity-style products and publicity can skyrocket a chef’s career, but taking things to that level can be costly in more ways than one.

Consider the pitfalls and perks of seeking fame and how to get noticed without forsaking your craft—or dignity.

Be authentic. It’s hard to believe that anything on reality TV might be real. But Karlitz and others agree it’s essential to know and convey the craft of professional cooking. “If you don’t have culinary credibility, you don’t have anything,” Karlitz says.

Don’t overlook the basics. The entertainment aspect of celebrity chef-dom came naturally to former actress Elfie Weiss, who owns Los Angeles-based Hotcakes Bakes and won the first “Cupcake Wars” on the Food Network. But that didn’t mean she skipped learning to bake. She attributes her success to mastering her baking skills in the “underground and unventilated” kitchens of her native France, not her celebrity status.

Be approachable. Tattoos and mohawks might work for some chefs but sometimes less is more. “One of the things about being in the limelight is that you have to be approachable for everyone,” says Chef Barbie Marshall, a finalist on the 10th season of “Hell’s Kitchen.” “I’m all for freedom of expression but if you are really outrageous, it might be off-putting.” 

Don’t bank on it. Fame is fleeting, Borsich cautions. Even if you find success and make some cash, you can’t count on that to carry you for decades. Just as the young athlete plans for the days he can no longer play ball, a celebrity chef must prepare for the day his cookbook lands on the final sale table. Save and invest wisely. 

Build your brand. If you want to become known as the best pie maker in the country, get the message out, says Maggie Jessup, author of “Fame 101.” Assuming you actually make great pies, she suggests creating two websites: one for you and one for the pies. Both should be integrated with a common aesthetic, leveraging social media, videos and a blog.

Don’t skip training. Even the most seasoned TV personality probably bombed his or her first media appearance. Those bent on becoming a celebrity chef should consider media training. “No one is born with a red light looking into a TV camera,” Karlitz says. That training will also come in handy at local events when interacting with customers and any time a message needs to be conveyed to a crowd. 

Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based business, travel and food writer.

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The Real Side of Reality Shows 

Texas chef Otto Borsich appeared on the second season of Bravo’s "Top Chef" in 2006. Here are his comments on the experience:

“Reality shows, be it cooking or other genres, is false fame. Contestants on these shows feel they have been given a green light to be aggressive or act up. That is one of the worst things they can do—specially on a cooking reality show. It just fuels the reputation that chefs are crazed, tyrannical, and relentless souls who must win at any cost. 

The heat of the reality show spot light can burn you.  It’s long days, 14 to 16 hours. You are constantly followed by PA's (production assistants) who record your words and actions. (this is in large part how the plot is built). You are shut down from the outside world. During filming there is no access to TV, internet, radio, newspaper, or cell phone. You are on lock down, herded like cattle from point A to point B and back to A again. 

It takes a unique type of person to try out for a reality show and the casting directors/producers are looking for certain individuals to typecast into the making of their show.  It’s not for the faint of heart or thin-skinned. If I had to do it all over again would I? Absolutely. Just remember one thing if you have ideas about trying out for a reality show. Reality TV is not reality.  It is a situation where Type A personalities clash under extreme conditions to provide entertainment to gain viewership to generate advertising capital.  It’s all about the network and the almighty dollar.”