America’s 25 Most Successful Chefs of 2016
March 10, 2016
The country’s biggest chefs aren’t just chefs, they’re brands
Composite by Kristen Hom
America’s Most Successful Chefs of 2016
Composite by Kristen Hom
The most successful chefs in America aren’t just chefs. They’re brands, and extremely valuable ones at that. Using all the data available to us, we ranked the top 25 chefs and other food professionals according to their estimated net worth, and the numbers for some of these chefs are pretty shocking.
#25 Rocco DiSpirito: $4 million
DiSpirito first gained notice as the chef-owner at New York’s Union Pacific, which opened in 1997 and earned a three-star review from the New York Times, but he really rose to fame (and notoriety) in 2003 as the star of The Restaurant, an NBC reality show that tracked his travails launching and running a New York restaurant, called Rocco’s. It ended disastrously, with DiSpirito being banned from the premises and successfully sued by his business partner Jeffrey Chodorow, but DiSpirito has since bounced back in a big way. He’s appeared on Dancing with the Stars, hosted a weekly show on Bravo called Rocco’s Dinner Party, and has published eight cookbooks. Lately, he’s been hawking his newest book, The Negative Calorie Diet, and has also been running a brisk business selling snacks, shakes, and protein powder as part of his Pound a Day Diet, as well as running a fresh food delivery service starting at $39/day.
#24 Ina Garten: $5.8 Million
From humble beginnings as the proprietor of an East Hampton specialty food store, the Barefoot Contessa now runs an empire that’s worth more than $40 million; she was also was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people last year. She’s published nine cookbooks (she probably sells more of them than anyone else in America right now), hosts a popular series on Food Network, and markets a line of Barefoot Contessa-branded specialty foods.
#23 Jean-Georges Vongerichten: $6.8 million
Vongerichten has written five cookbooks, two with Mark Bittman, and runs 30 bars and restaurants in America and abroad — including the Michelin-three-starred Jean Georges in Manhattan — under the umbrella of his restaurant groups Culinary Concepts and Jean-Georges Enterprises. His energy is boundless; his next endeavor will be opening his first Los Angeles restaurant, Jean-Georges at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills. And if endless eateries were not enough, Vongerichten also claims he invented molten chocolate cake in the late '80s.
#22 Masaharu Morimoto: $7.8 million
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This former head chef at Nobu was an Iron Chef in both Japan and America, and went on to open successful mega-restaurants bearing his name in Philadelphia and New York City. Today, Masaharu Morimoto’s domain includes 10 restaurants in such far-flung locales as Boca Raton, Florida; Napa Valley, California; Hawaii; Tokyo; New Delhi; and Mumbai, and his most recent opening is Morimoto Asia in Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). He also finds the time to partner with Stone Brewing on a line of Morimoto-branded beers.
#21 Rick Bayless: $7.9 Million
A fourth-generation Oklahoman isn't the obvious choice to be an ambassador for authentic Mexican cuisine in America, but a stint in Mexico with his wife after doing doctoral work in anthropological linguistics eventually led Rick Bayless from one Mexican-flavored culinary success to another. First there was his book Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico and his initial Chicago restaurant, the successful Frontera Grill. Since then, he has published seven more books; opened several other restaurants, including his Los Angeles debut Red O in 2010; and launched a line of Frontera products. He’s even getting into the airport act with Tortas Frontera, and oversees sandwich shops and prepared food products under the same Frontera name — an empire worth a reported $30 million and growing. His public television program, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, is in its tenth season, he has new restaurants in the works in Chicago and at Disney World, and the fact that he was also the first winner of Top Chef Masters is just gravy.
#20 Curtis Stone: $8 Million
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This Australian chef, who trained under chef Marco Pierre White in London, worked his way up to the role of head chef at that city's much-lauded Quo Vadis before landing appearances and hosting gigs on shows like Top Chef Masters, Take Home Chef, The Today Show, America’s Next Great Restaurant, The Biggest Loser, Around the World in 80 Plates, and MasterChef. He’s published six cookbooks and sells his own line of cookware; his restaurant, Maude, is one of the hottest tickets in Beverly Hills. A follow-up Hollywood restaurant, called Gwen, is in the works, and he also recently opened two more restaurants — on Princess cruise chips.
#19 Thomas Keller: $8.3 Million
Widely considered to be one of America’s best chefs, Thomas Keller hasn’t done too poorly for himself since leaving New York City after the failure of his first restaurant, Rakel; Keller is the only American-born chef with two three-Michelin-starred restaurants. He shouldn’t have to worry about money for the rest of his life, either. There’s Per Se (which is still going strong even after a recent scathing New York Times review) and The French Laundry, of course, along with the three Bouchons, Ad Hoc, five Bouchon Bakery locations, speaking engagements, and book sales estimated at more than $1 million. Even Williams-Sonoma is riding the Keller coattails; it sells Ad Hoc’s famous fried chicken kit and Bouchon Bakery cookie mixes. He’s also dipped his toes into the retail storefront waters with Finesse, a Napa-based store selling cookware, pantry items, gardening tools, his five cookbooks, and gift cards.
#18 Michael Mina: $8.7 Million
Though Michael Mina lacks the TV cred or multiple book deals of a Guy Fieri or a Bobby Flay, his company does run 25 restaurants. And those restaurants — all over America, in California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Washington State, D.C., and Wyoming — are no slouches. His eponymous restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco are Michelin-starred affairs, and his other locations are consistently recognized by local and national press for excellence. He’s expanding beyond the kitchen into a wine-delivery club, but unlike most other chefs on this list, Mina focuses solely on his restaurants.
#17 Charlie Palmer: $8.9 Million
He's not necessarily a household name, but with help from investor Oliver Grace, Palmer has slowly but surely built an empire with annual revenue estimated at more than $30 million. After a stint at the River Café in Brooklyn, Palmer gained fame as chef-proprietor of the original Aureole in Manhattan (once given four stars by The New York Times). Aureole has since moved to 42nd Street (there is also one in Las Vegas), but today Palmer's holdings also include 16 other restaurants, in New York (including foodservice operations at the newly-renovated Knickerbocker in Times Square), Las Vegas, Reno, D.C., and California, as well as three California hotels.
#16 Anthony Bourdain: $9 Million
Bourdain has certainly made the most out of his bad-boy persona, sliding gracefully into his current role as the elder statesman of culinary-slanted tourism. Bourdain branded his bad-boy image with his first book, Kitchen Confidential, which exposed classified culinary chronicles. He now maintains a tenuous link to the Les Halles restaurants as "Chef-at-Large" (the New York outpost has an estimated $3.7 million in annual sales), but the majority of his income is derived from his book sales (he’s even published graphic novels), live appearances (which can command up to $150,000 each), and his CNN travelogue Parts Unknown. Recently, his efforts have been focused on an upcoming cookbook and opening a sprawling international food hall in New York, which will feature more than 100 individual food stalls.
#15 Tom Colicchio: $9.1 Million
Although he is a respected chef (he was the co-founder of Manhattan's award-winning Gramercy Tavern and cooked there for years), Tom Colicchio is known to the general public from the comfort of their own homes. He became a TV star as a judge on Top Chef (he is also a producer for the show, and was a producer for one of its spinoff, Top Chef Masters), and his celebrity has helped him expand his original Craft Restaurant in New York to a total of eight Craft-related establishments on both coasts. Colicchio is said to command $80,000 for public appearances. He has restaurants in the works for the under-renovation Beekman Hotel in Downtown New York, and his foray into casual dining, the ‘wichcraft sandwich chain, has also been wildly successful. Plus, he was named MSNBC’s first “Food Correspondent.”
#14 Todd English: $9.8 Million
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The portraits on Todd English's website look more like a would-be soap star's portfolio than the documentation of a working chef. While English has had some high-profile failures and his personal life has been the source of tabloid fodder, he still oversees a roster of 15 restaurants (including food halls in Manila and the Plaza Hotel), and his restaurant group thrives despite said setbacks. His four cookbooks, his popular PBS show Food Trip, and his line of branded cookware keep the coffers full.
#13 Guy Fieri: $10 Million
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The winner of season two of Food Network Star is a powerhouse, a celebrity whose "krew" calls him "The Guid" (as in "Guido," an early nickname). The host of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Big Bite has 11 restaurants, two New York Times best-sellers, estimated book sales of $1.5 million, lines of apparel and products, a hectic schedule of lucrative public appearances that net him $100,000 each, bodyguards who flank him at all times, and a hairstyle as distinctive as Donald Trump's. And even though his Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, received one of the all-time worst New York Times reviews, it’s still one of the most lucrative restaurants in the country. He recently launched a line of wines, Hunt & Ryde, name after his two sons.
#12 Daniel Boulud: $10 Million
A French chef who doesn’t own any restaurants in France, Boulud rose to prominence in New York City, where he runs eight establishments, including Épicerie Boulud, which marks his first foray into retail (though he has long sold private-label wine, Champagne, and smoked salmon). His Dinex Group also has restaurants in Boston, D.C., Las Vegas, Miami, Palm Beach, Florida, London, Montreal, Toronto, and Singapore; his Feast and Fêtes catering company is known as one of New York's best; he’s recently partnered with Air France to develop their Business and First Class menus; and he even has his own line of smoked salmon.
#11 Emeril Lagasse: $11.2 Million
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Emeril is the Cher of chefs, comparable for his exuberant (on stage, at least) personality and because the whole world seems to know him by his first name alone. After gaining many devoted fans through his show Emeril Live — he actually trademarked his familiar exhortation "BAM!," and used the word on his many product lines — he sold his brand to Martha Stewart Omnimedia in 2008, along with the rights to all of his cookbooks and TV shows, for a reported $50 million. He still runs 12 restaurants, including the flagship Emeril’s New Orleans and four Las Vegas outposts, and hosts his own show, Emeril’s Florida, on the Cooking Channel, further cementing his celebrity chef status.
#10 Nobu Matsuhisa: $12 Million
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Nobu restaurants are getting to be like Starbucks; sometimes it seems like there's one on every corner. All right, that's an exaggeration, but Nobu Matsuhisa — who virtually reinvented Japanese food for non-Japanese diners (his black cod with miso became one of the signature dishes of the 1990s in restaurants all over the country) — does oversee, with varying degrees of personal involvement, almost 30 restaurants, three with Michelin stars, in locations ranging from Aspen to Athens, and from Dallas to Dubai. Factor in his four cookbooks, his line of Nobu Matsuhisa Original Dinnerware, his premium sake and beer brands, and his six Nobu-branded hotels around the world, and it's obvious why his presence seems ubiquitous. With all that said, his close friendship with Robert De Niro is priceless. Up next? A Nobu in D.C. and a revitalized New York flagship opening in the Financial District next year.
#9 Alain Ducasse: $12 Million
His countryman Joël Robuchon may be more respected by most food critics, but Ducasse, who can certainly hold his own in the cooking department, operates 24 restaurants and two hotels across the globe, with a total annual revenue of more than $70 million. He has made missteps (his original New York City establishment, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, was widely criticized for its pretensions and its prices, and eventually closed), but in both 2005 and 2010, he achieved the unparalleled distinction of having three three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the same year. Filling out his bulging résumé are a Parisian culinary school, countless cookbooks, and a thriving consulting company. His two stateside restaurants, Benoit in New York and the recently-opened Rivea in Las Vegas (along with the adjacent Skyfall Lounge), are doing gangbusters.
#8 Paula Deen: $12.5 Million
At the height of her powers (about four years ago), Paula Deen was commanding $50,000 per episode of her popular Food Network show, Paula’s Home Cooking, and had endorsement deals with everyone from QVC to Walgreens to Novo NorDisk (she famously hawked their diabetes drug). It all came crashing down in a major PR disaster in 2013, but even though she lost her flagship show and many endorsements, she’s still doing just fine financially. In early 2013 she raised between $75 and $100 million for her then-new company Paula Deen Ventures, her flagship Savannah restaurant The Lady & Sons is a success, and last year she opened a second restaurant called Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen. Plus, she launched her own 24/7 paid digital network, went on a national tour, and still sells her Deen-branded products. Believe it or not, her comeback is in full swing, as has been for some time now.
#7 Joël Robuchon: $12.8 Million
"The Chef of the 20th Century," as he was dubbed by the Gault Millau guide, is making an equally strong impression in the twenty-first century. Although there are only two Robuchon restaurants in the United States (both in Las Vegas), Robuchon’s not hurting, even though a flagship restaurant and gourmet market that was slated to open in New York last year fell through. As big in Asia as he is in the West, Robuchon has about 20 restaurants throughout the world, 16 cookbooks, and more Michelin stars (26) than any other chef.
#6 Bobby Flay: $20 Million
One of the reigning kings of the Food Network, Bobby Flay has hosted a whopping 13 shows and specials, has five sit-down restaurants across the United States, 19 Burger Palaces (and counting), and 12 cookbooks. He even owns the studio, Rock Shrimp, which produces his shows. With all the TV appearances, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Flay built his reputation because of good cooking, and all without a high school diploma. The king of the Food Network was the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1993, just two years after opening his first restaurant, Mesa Grill, on New York City's Fifth Avenue. Last year, he became the first chef to earn a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
#5 Mario Batali: $30 Million
The Batali-verse is ever expanding. Though best-known as a shorts-and-orange-Crocs-wearing Italian chef, the Seattle-born Batali has interests ranging from NASCAR to Spanish cuisine to a foundation whose mission is "to educate, empower, and encourage children." The diversity of both his restaurant catalogue (pizza, tapas, gastro-pub fare, trattoria food, high-class Italian, etc.) and his media presence reveals a multi-talented chef with a multi-faceted personality. He and partner Joe Bastianich run 26 restaurants, among them the elegant Del Posto (the first Italian restaurant to earn four stars from The New York Times since 1974), the flagship Babbo in New York (still a very tough reservation), the newly-opened La Sirena in New York (already a certified hotspot), a more casual version Babbo in Boston, and the first two American branches of the Italian restaurant–market complex called Eataly, with many more in the works.
#4 Gordon Ramsay: $49 Million
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This Scot is better-known in America for his restaurant-based reality shows — among them, FOX Network’s Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares — than for the reality of his restaurants, but he is an excellent chef who has garnered a total of 13 Michelin stars and currently holds seven. It is unclear how much involvement he still has with his Los Angeles and New York eateries, but his 29 establishments around the world surely keep him busy. He’s estimated to earn $225,000 per episode for his numerous TV shows, and every year he rakes in an estimated $45 million from his media and restaurant empires. It was recently revealed that Ramsay is paid nearly a half-million dollars to show up at his Las Vegas restaurant just one day per year, and earns at least an additional $80,000 annually for licensing his name to Caesars Atlantic City. Nice work if you can get it!
#3 Rachael Ray: $53 Million
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A protégé of daytime talk show doyenne Oprah Winfrey, Ray has become quite a force herself. As the matriarch of financially conscious families and hurried home cooks, Ray made a name for herself with Food Network hits like $40 a Day and 30 Minute Meals. Following in Winfrey’s footsteps, Ray launched her own magazine, Everyday with Rachael Ray, and a daytime talk show, The Rachael Ray Show, promoting her carpe-diem, can-do attitude, in 2005. Though she is one of the few chefs on this list who does not own her own restaurant — as everything would have to be out in 30 minutes or less — Ray reportedly sits on a fortune that would make Winfrey proud, raking in about $7 million per year from sources not including sponsorships and endorsements.
#2 Wolfgang Puck: $75 Million
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Though Puck, whose name is synonymous with "California Cuisine," has worked the celebrity angle hard, his endlessly creative takes on a multitude of cuisines, from pizza to Asian food, still earn him the respect of the food world. As enterprising as they come, Puck boasts six Spago locations and six Cut locations across the globe (with 27 fine dining restaurants total); numerous cookbooks; a successful catering arm; a TV career that earned him a cooking-show Emmy and appearances on Frasier, Las Vegas, Keeping Up with The Kardashians, and The Simpsons; and lines of food products, cookware, and appliances (among them a coffee maker and the coffee pods to go with it). Puck has even made forays into fast(ish) food with more than 50 Wolfgang Puck Express locations in the United States, Canada, and Japan, which now even appear in airport terminals. Just one of his enterprises, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, which oversees his casual dining restaurants and food products, is estimated to be worth more than $400 million, and some estimates of the total annual income generated by his various concerns reach more than twice that. For his next move, Puck will be opening his first New York restaurant, an outpost of Cut at the Four Seasons Downtown, in July.
#1 Jamie Oliver: $256 Million
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Having finally lived down the lascivious-sounding moniker "The Naked Chef" (which in fact referred to his penchant for simplicity in food, not his uniform while cooking), Oliver has become as well-known for his charity and food activism as for his stripped-down, ingredient-focused cuisine. Although Oliver has more than 30 restaurants in the U.K., Dubai, and Australia, Americans are more familiar with his cooking shows and his reality series about America’s child obesity rates, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. With his wife, Jules, he also runs a successful line of children’s wear, and has recently partnered with ingredient delivery service HelloFresh. And while his net worth dropped over the past year from a whopping $356 million to “only” $256 million (according to The Sunday Times' "Rich List"), he’s still the wealthiest chef in the world, by far.