All About the Benjamins, Er, Béchamels

This week’s New York Times Dining section features two loosely related stories on how chefs make their money and develop their empires in this age of culinary celebrities. The first piece, by longtime food writer Michael Ruhlman, is thought-provoking if disorganized; the second, by Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, is maddening in a very classically Brunian way.

Ruhlman explores the different experiences of minor-celebrity chefs, like public TV’s Ming Tsai and Michelle Bernstein of the Miami restaurant Michy’s, and the Batalis and Flays of the world. “I’m not even upper middle class,” says Bernstein, who does so many food-related side jobs that she’s rarely in the Michy’s kitchen. “I’ve been supporting us from the consulting. Basically holding together a family of two, with a house and a car.”

Then Ruhlman jumps abruptly into the celebs’ universe:

Even Mr. Flay and Mr. Batali say that with all of their other deals, their restaurants are where they make most of their money. “The restaurants are my foundation,” Mr. Flay said. “It’s where I spend 90 percent of my time. They’re my bread and butter.”

I find it hard to believe that Flay really does find the time to hang out so much in his five restaurants (which apparently account for 80 percent of his company’s income). But that aside, the difference between the up-and-comers and the already-theres is striking—the former scraping together extra money from side gigs, the latter relying on their multiple high-ticket restaurants for steady income and their $10,000 to $60,000 cookware deals for pocket change.

Bruni’s piece about chefs’ inflated egos is much lighter on the stats and heavier on the hackneyed observations—like this one about overly talkative servers who “describe dish after dish, from an amuse-bouche hardly bigger than a semicolon to a scoop of vanilla ice cream, in exhaustive detail and priestly voices.” Bo-ring. I know he eats at a lot of high-end restaurants and encounters annoying server/restaurateur behavior often, but he laments these purported injustices in a way that’s often just as obnoxious. Where are The Bruni Digest and Gastropoda when you need them?

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