Hawking Blenders in the Buff, Chefs Play the Brand Game

A full-page ad in Food Arts magazine portrays David Waltuck, the chef and co-owner of Chanterelle, gazing at the camera with a stunned, almost snarly expression, his sculpted arms bent downward in a bodybuilder fashion as he holds a bulky kitchen blender. Save for the strategic placement of the machine, he is buck naked.

An advertisement in Food and Wine magazine depicts five leading San Francisco chefs posing around a fully set dining-room table in the middle of what appears to be an overgrown wheat field; in the background is a fake-looking Golden Gate Bridge. Standing on the table is a large smiling raisin wearing white gloves and blue sneakers. “Cooking with Raisins,” the text proclaims.

Chefs and restaurateurs are fast becoming among America’s newest—and sexiest—advertising icons. While Tiger and Michael and Magic need not glance worriedly over their shoulders, chefs like Charlie Palmer, Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson and Charlie Trotter have enjoyed considerable success as poster boys for various companies, lending panache to everything from bottled water to vanity stoves.

Most of this has been made possible by their continual exposure through television cooking shows, cookbooks, newspapers and magazines. And who’d have thought just a decade ago that Americans would become captivated by chefs cooking on television, bonding with them in ways previously reserved for sitcom characters?

I’d always wondered how these endorsements work. Who conceives them? How are the chefs chosen? What are they paid? I decided to call around to some of the bigger players in the game.

“Ten to 15 years ago, most chefs refused to get involved with product work—they considered it selling out,” said Lisa Ekus, owner of a large talent agency bearing her name that also promotes many food authors. “But with television, chefs are seen as average people that you can relate to, who you can talk to in their restaurants—unlike track stars and basketball heroes, who are unreachable.”

Ms. Ekus added that a prominent—and photogenic—chef can add the kind of familiarity and integrity that builds a successful brand. One example was the naked-chef ads, which, according to Vita-Mix, manufacturer of Vita-Prep blenders, was an unexpected success.

“It was great for us and really created a buzz in the industry, giving us instant awareness for our product,” said Scott Hinckley, director of sales and marketing. “Essentially it said, ‘This product must be really good if a chef is willing to get naked for it.’”

Other New York chefs who posed au naturel during the four-year campaign were Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit and David Burke of David Burke and Donatella. Some 50 chefs participated nationwide. The ads appeared exclusively in Food Arts magazine.

While most of the ads featured male chefs, some women—like Melissa Kelly, who has a restaurant called Primo in Rockland, Me.—also got the call. Her Vita-Prep portrait assumed a biblical theme, with Ms. Kelly lying Eve-like on a bed of autumn leaves, her intimate parts tastefully concealed. (It would have been much sexier without the blender next to her head.)

The only compensation to the chefs was a free blender.

“Still, we got calls daily from chefs wanting to be part of it,” Mr. Hinckley added. Many of the chefs I interviewed said that money wasn’t important because the advertisement afforded them—no pun intended—great exposure. The naked-chef campaign ended late last year because, as Mr. Hinckley said, “We were running out of top chefs.”

Not so at the more munificent Sunkist, which has recruited more than 100 chefs over the years. At the moment, the most visible is Rick Tramonto of the Chicago restaurant Tru. In a recent spread, Mr. Tramonto was portrayed wearing a white chef’s jacket and white tie adorned with lemons and oranges. It appears that he has half an orange in his mouth—something I used to do to scare my little sister and chase her around the house.

The somewhat enigmatic text reads: “Paris runways? Who needs ’em. As Tru restaurant partner Rick Tramonto knows, the real trendsetters are 5,000 miles away, strutting their stuff in the citrus groves of California and Arizona.”

Aside from appearing in ads, Mr. Tramonto acts as a consultant and recipe developer and appears at Sunkist events.

He declined to divulge his fees from Sunkist, but hinted they were substantial:

“Let’s just say my own day rate is $5,000.” In some cases, he said, well-known chefs can command up to $50,000 for appearances.

Mr. Tramonto also represents Calphalon cookware, Robot Coupe (another food processor) and a company called ISI, which manufactures foam containers.

“The credibility factors of these chefs is amazing,” said Kellie DuBois, marketing director for Sunkist. “We seek out those people—and, of course, they are chefs who have a passion for citrus.”

I asked Ms. DuBois about the chefs’ remuneration. “Some get more than others” is as far as she would go, adding: “But for sure we are not creating millionaires.”

One of the hottest campaigns at the moment is for Fiji water, which has skyrocketed from virtually unknown three years ago to among the most popular bottled waters in the country. Its illustrious advertising quaffers include Nobu Matsushisa, Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who describes Fiji water as “a rare discovery” and “extraordinary.” I have yet to visit their restaurants and order bottled water in order to see what they serve. For now, I’ll have to take their word for it.

One of the first companies to recruit chefs and restaurateurs for advertising, some 14 years ago, was Illy, which manufactures high-end coffee makers. It has run through more than 100 food personalities to date, among them Mr. Tramonto, Mr. Matsushisa, Sirio Maccioni, Tony May, Drew Nieporent, David Burke, Douglas Rodriguez, Rocco DiSpirito, Geoffrey Zakarian and the omnipresent Eric Ripert. The award-winning ads are essentially well-propped portraits. On occasion, though, in stretching to be original, the ads can be rather opaque. In the current Illy ad, Andrew Marc Rothschild—identified as the executive chef of the Forge in Miami Beach, Fla.—is outfitted as a hockey player, right down to the bulging gloves and sweat-drenched hair. The copy reads: “To be the best demands moments of perfection. Illy provides that moment in every cup.”

I read the text and looked at the hockey garb. Again, I looked at the text and the hockey player. Eventually I got the message—I think.

Illy, a relatively small company with global sales of about $160 million, has a seat-of-the-pants advertising operation, mostly done in-house. Chefs are paid nothing; they’re even required to provide all photo props.

“We’ve had an outstanding reader response,” said Ms. Fiori. “And the chefs get great exposure with their names and faces around.”

In the case of this month’s Illy star chef, maybe a little royalty would have been desirable. When I called the Forge to interview Mr. Rothschild, a receptionist informed me that he was no longer in their employ. Did she know where he went? “No, he didn’t say,” she replied.

I called Ms. Fiori to tell her that this month’s Illy celebrity had decamped without warning for points unknown.

“He what?” she exclaimed. “I’ll get on that as soon as we hang up the phone!”

Virtually all of the chefs I spoke with vowed that they wouldn’t work with products they deemed inferior or that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Wayne Nish of March recalled how, some years ago, he was contacted by Ronzoni to be a spokesman.

“I had never done anything like this before, so I thought, ‘Hey—why not?’” Mr. Nish recalled. “But then I started thinking, ‘I don’t eat Ronzoni rice; I don’t cook with it at the restaurant.’ So I turned it down.”

Geoffrey Zakarian of Town demurred when Vita-Mix asked him to disrobe for the camera. “I use the product, but I thought about it for about half a second and said to myself, ‘What is the upside of this for me? Why should I do something that is so silly and that could have a huge downside at some point in the future?’”

One chef who probably wishes he had done the same is Rick Bayless, the well-known authority on authentic Mexican food and owner of two celebrated Chicago restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill—a man highly respected as an uncompromising purist. Late last year, he appeared in television commercials endorsing, of all things, Burger King’s low-cal Santa Fe Fire-Grilled Chicken Baguette Sandwich. As it turned out, baring your butt for a blender is one thing, but hawking for Burger King is another. Mr. Bayless was fire-grilled himself by some of his professional colleagues. Pressed to say how much he’d earned for the endorsement, he conceded a sum “in the six figures.” Some people defended Mr. Bayless, however, saying it’s laudable to encourage fast-food companies that attempt to serve more healthful fare.

Among his detractors was the always diplomatic Anthony Bourdain, chef of Les Halles on Park Avenue and author of Kitchen Confidential, who branded Mr. Bayless as “a pimp for the Evil Empire.”

Could it be we’ll ever see the likes of Mario Batali in a flashy new Hummer, roaring off the West Side Highway onto the pebbly banks of the Hudson River, or a Wal-Mart line of Charlie Trotter spatulas?

“It’s all about branding today,” Ms. Ekus maintained. “You get your name out there any way you can. The key is to find a product that works well with your sensibility.” Hawking Blenders in the Buff, Chefs Play the Brand Game