Life Beyond the Kitchen – Chefs Build Their Brands with Chef Network Inc.

The food scene in Toronto is abuzz this week with distress over UK chef Marco Pierre White’s decision to become the face of Knorr bouillon cubes. Disregarding the fact that White has been the face of Knorr in the UK for a few years, food writers and chefs seem genuinely distressed that White has “sold out” for the corporate big bucks.

Known as one of the best chefs in the world, White’s decision to become the face of Knorr (and his insistence that all of his restaurants use the product in place of real stock) is confusing, amusing, and to his fans, especially other chefs, understandably upsetting.

The world may never know White’s real reasons for taking the endorsement, but in an era when even successful chefs don’t make a lot of money from cooking, branding yourself has taken on a much greater importance, especially for chefs coming to a point in their careers when it’s no longer enjoyable to work the line every night.

Chefs everywhere are in big demand – for cookbooks, personal appearances, television shows, and yes, endorsement deals. But it’s not as easy as one might think to hook up with the big players, and it’s not always a good idea for chefs to try and broker deals on their own.

That’s where Carmen Correia and Chef Network Inc. (CNI) come into play.

Based in Toronto, Correia and her team represent over 2100 chefs from all over the world. If you see a chef on a Canadian food show, doing a demo at an event like the Canadian National Exhibition, or in a Canadian advertising campaign, odds are that CNI had a hand in brokering the deal. Representing chefs such as Lynn Crawford, Massimo Capra, Corbin Tomaszeski, Susur Lee, Tawfik Shehata, and food celebrities including Padma Lakshmi and Kevin Brauch, to name just a few, Correia is the key figure in matching up chefs with the projects that are best suited to their skills and personalities.

“Any money that a chef can make outside a restaurant, that’s what we do,” Correia tells me. “That’s the easiest way to describe it – endorsement deals, book source agreements, appearances, shows, fundraisers and charities.”

CNI has arranged for chefs to appear at a Yukon Dog Sledding event with Food Network celebrity chefs (last year Chef Massimo Capra, this year Chef Lynn Crawford); the Mexico City International Chocolate Festival (Chefs Corbin and Lynn from Restaurant Makeover as well as Chef Patrick Wiese from Oprah’s kitchen); Napa Valley Wine Tour (Kevin Brauch and Dana Speers), and many more.

Besides brokering contracts between chefs and clients (which include Samsung, , KitchenAid, GE Appliances, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Unilever, LCBO, Catelli Pasta, and many restaurant chains), CNI helps chefs prepare for their new role in the spotlight, arranging things like head shots and writing bios, as well as showing chefs how to do interviews, how to increase their brand, how to get a cookbook published, or how to become a guest on various talk shows. All ways that a chef can increase their brand and become a draw that will enable them to attract higher fees.

Like all aspects of the business world, professionalism is key, and Correia makes it clear to chefs that what works in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily work in the regular world. Swearing (unless you’re Gordon Ramsay) is a no-no, as is showing up to do a TV appearance in dirty whites. She relates an incident in which a chef who was being considered for campaigns or events with four separate clients showed up for an appearance on a morning talk show with untidy hair and a dirty chef jacket. “I know the top make-up artists and hair people who would wake up at four in the morning to take care of [the chef],” she explains, pointing out that most talk shows and many food shows don’t provide make-up people, “so there needs to be some priority, and they need to be in charge of their brand.”

Correia and her team also sit down with chefs to work out long term goals – explaining the details involved in writing and editing a cookbook, for instance; or helping chefs from other ethnic backgrounds who may have 10 cookbooks under their belt translate their brand to a North American audience.

She makes it clear that cookbooks will not make a chef rich, but they are the most effective business card and credibility a chef will have. “Those chefs out there who are too busy to make a cookbook are really missing out on the business,” she says, pointing out that most good cookbooks tell a compelling story about the chef’s background, or what inspired them, and that is what creates a fan before the chef has even started work on building a “brand”. She also encourages chefs to test their recipes in their Moms’ kitchens to ensure the food works outside of a restaurant kitchen – again speaking to the chef’s credibility and trustworthiness.

CNI makes its money by taking a commission of what the chefs are paid (there is no charge to the client), and while their 30% commission is fairly standard, some chefs balk and try to go it alone, or work with talent agencies designed for actors. But for a chef looking to expand their work beyond the kitchen, CNI is their best bet. Because Correia and her team are so in tune with the industry, she is able to broker better deals for the chef, and direct their exposure in a way that continues to build the chef’s brand.

Chefs who bypass working with the agency because they are adverse to paying the commission will soon see the difference between the $10,000 or less they can make for themselves in a year and the $100,000 CNI could have made for them – giving away $30,000 in commissions while taking home $70,000 is a lot better that doing all the work yourself and only making ten grand.

Correia points out that chefs who do these deals on their own, or who do freebies thinking that it will increase their exposure, are really diluting rather than building their brands and tend to lose rather than increase their future deals.

She explains that clients rarely request chefs by name. Instead they may ask for four lesser known chefs from across the country for promotional events in various cities, or perhaps one nationally-known chef, or maybe three Italian chefs. From there, it’s at her discretion to choose the best brand ambassador for that client.

10% of CNI’s chef roster fill 90% of the client requests, just because Correia will use chefs that she can count on and who are well known. The agency represents chefs from age 16 and up, but the majority of the business tends to go to chefs who are between 35 and 60, probably because they are more dedicated to moving into this area of work as long hot days in a restaurant kitchen take their toll. And unless they’re working in a wholly corporate situation with pensions and benefits, many older chefs are also looking to create a nest egg that is definitely easier to achieve by becoming a product spokesperson.

Correia’s one bone of contention: she finds it hard to find female chefs interested in this kind of work, either because there just aren’t as many female chefs out there, or because they’re directing their energies to moving up within the restaurant industry. But Correia assures me that she gets more requests for female chefs than she can fill.

Since product endorsements are the most obvious of the deals that CNI brokers, the ones that the general public are most likely to see – and in cases like Marco Pierre White, react to – I ask Correia about them specifically.

“When clients call us for a ‘celebrity chef’ they are really calling for a ‘brand ambassador’ who exudes their product or event’s lifestyle,” she explains. “That said, endorsements come in many forms from the obvious such as appliances and food to the not-so-obvious such as health care and pharmaceuticals, product launches, condo development, tourism, automotive, charity, fundraisers, etc.”

She makes it clear that a chef is never expected to take on an endorsement deal for something they find reprehensible, but that they may actually be able to have input into the development of a product to bring it more in line with their own values.

In the case of Marco Pierre White, she says that he had a hand in determining the quality and ingredients, and that yes, she bets “he has a pantry full of the stuff and he’s not throwing it away.”

“The message that I would like to come across [to readers], as chefs are booked for engagements such as these, it’s not just about the contract and dollars… it’s about improving the product image and product itself – with the help of a professional chef.”

Correia also points out that the reality of home cooking today is TV dinners, take-out and processed ingredients. Less than 1% of Canadian homes make their own stock. That people are making something that requires stock at all means they’re making some effort at cooking and not just reheating.

“If I saw [Marco] in a Burger King ad, this would be a whole different story. In the end, what Marco is promoting is home cooking, with the help of Knorr. Not a bad thing.”

Whether chefs love or hate the idea of putting their face (and reputation) to a product, event, TV show or cookbook, it’s not an easy task to do on their own. But if a chef’s career is to continue beyond the kitchen, working with an organization such as CNI is probably the best way to go about it. They get to continue to do what they love, they hopefully make a good chunk of money doing it, and they get to work with some people who seem truly dedicated to putting the chef’s best interests first.