Five Celebrity Chefs Who Started Small


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We live in a celebrity-inspired world, but although the relentless focus on celebrities can sometimes become a bit much, in some cases they can provide an inspiration to anyone wanting to make a success of their chosen career.

One area in which the celebrity has become an inspiration is in the catering world, where chefs such as Jamie Oliver have done more to inspire a future generation of restaurateurs and chefs than any business advice book ever could.

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver started his chef training at a young age, giving a helping hand in his parents’ restaurant in Essex. He started at the bottom in the kitchens, but his ambitions to become a chef grew and he left school at 16 to train at Westminster Catering College. He worked in France for some time, then had a stint at Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant in London before being ‘discovered’ at work during the filming of a documentary on the River Café restaurant in 1997.

As well as his own cookery shows, starting with The Naked Chef in 1997, Jamie has since been involved in a number of projects that have proved to be as famous as his recipes. He opened Fifteen, a training restaurant for young unemployed people with an associated charity, campaigned tirelessly for better school dinners for children in the UK (he even tried to change US school meals, though that wasn’t one of his more successful projects) and has written several recipe books.

In 2008 he opened a chain of Italian restaurants, in 2009 he started a home business network called ‘Jamie at Home’, and he has even cooked for a gathering of world leaders at 10 Downing Street. The key to Jamie’s success appears to be making to most of every business opportunity that comes his way, and tirelessly self-promoting! Jamie’s advice to would-be chefs includes:

There’s nothing that you can’t achieve with hard work, passion and real commitment for cooking. Read as many books as you can get your hands on and try to work in other countries if you can.”

He also recommends The Social Enterprise Coalition for anyone wanting to emulate his work with the Fifteen restaurants.

Gordon Ramsay

It’s hard to believe, but shouty chef Gordon hasn’t always been a chef. He changed careers after an injury put a stop to his footballing dreams, and originally took a course in hotel management. By 1993 he had excelled in food, and was appointed chef at Aubergine in London.

Five years later, at just 31, Gordon launched his own restaurant and it soon received three Michelin stars. Spurred on by this success, he went on to open restaurants all over the world, and his original establishment still holds those three Michelin stars (one of only four chefs in the world to manage it). He has even been awarded an OBE.

He’s been the star of several TV shows and authored many recipe books – all because of the decision to start his own catering business in 1998. If you want to follow in Gordon’s footsteps, and buy your own restaurant business, you’ll need to be familiar with Food Legislation, including the Food Hygiene regulations – something that many of the businesses Gordon has to visit on his Kitchen Nightmares show could have done with knowing…

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal was entranced by the idea of becoming a chef on a family holiday in France aged just 16. It took him a whole decade to realise his dream, working his way through dull jobs to pay the bills as he studied culinary techniques and travelled to France and other countries for food research purposes.

Heston decided to take a more scientific approach after reading a book called “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. From there, the experimental chef was born. After some serious market research and a lot of imagination, Heston bought a 450 year old pub in Bray, in 1995, and re-launched it as the Fat Duck, which went on to achieve a Michelin star, followed by a second and then a third. The Fat Duck is now famed the world over for its ‘molecular gastronomy’, with dishes such as sardine ice cream and snail porridge on the tasting menu.

In addition to his restaurant, Heston has presented TV shows such as Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection, Feast, and Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, in which he tried to improve the menu at Little Chef diners.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella, daughter of one of Margaret Thatcher’s most prominent cabinet ministers, Nigel Lawson, was a latecomer to the world of gastronomy. Originally a journalist, she developed a love of cooking as a child, when she would cook with her mother. Nigella’s career as a food writer started when she was asked to write a food column for The Spectator in 1992, and by 1998 she had published her first book, ‘How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food’.

The book led to a TV show, ‘Nigella Bites’ in 1999, and then another series of the show, which was backed up with another book, pushing her worldwide book sales past the 1.5 million mark. She also has her own cookware range. She doesn’t have a restaurant business, but her love of food and easy-going approach have made her one of the UK’s most loved celebrity chefs.

Jean Christophe Novelli

Jean Christophe Novelli is another example of how becoming a successful restaurant owner is often just down to pure determination and hard work. He left school at 14 and went to work in a bakery, but at the age of 19 found himself working for a restaurant chain owned by the Rothschild family. They were so impressed with his culinary abilities that he was asked to become the private chef to Eli Rothschild’s son.

At 22, Jean-Christophe Novelli moved to Britain and through word of mouth ended up managing Keith Floyd’s restaurant, the Maltsters Arms. He won his first Michelin star at Provence in Lymington, which is where he also won the Egon Ronay Dessert of the Year Award. He became Head Chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in London, but by 1996 he had decided that he now wanted his own restaurant, and opened Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell.

Although he’s had his share of setbacks, his reputation spread and by 2005 he was assuming full celebrity status as a chef on Hell’s Kitchen. He also founded his own his cooking school – the Novelli Academy – and launched a range of frozen ready meals. Jean Christophe is a TV regular, and has also presented his own shows in the US.

The one thing that most celebrity (and indeed non-celebrity) chefs have in common is sheer determination and an ability to spot an opportunity. If you’re thinking of following in their footsteps and using your gastronomic expertise to open a restaurant, do your homework, seek out the best possible training, and get advice from experts in buying and selling restaurant businesses.

Alexandra Johnson is a consultant with UK based business brokerage company Christie+Co. She is based in Oxford UK and provides advice to those thinking of buying and selling businesses.

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