On Food Network's "Iron Chef America," Table 8 Chef Govind Armstrong lost a one-hour battle with Bobby Flay, the New York celebrity chef, to cook the tastiest squash-based dishes.
But Flay should watch his back. Armstrong, whose winning smile and laid-back personality landed him a spot on People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" list last year, has got television appeal and he's looking to make it pay off.
"I have definitely been stopped a little more on the street. Guys and girls pulling over, saying, 'weren't you on Iron Chef?'" said Armstrong, whose Table 8 on Melrose Avenue is owned by Meridian Entertainment Group. "People do come in kind of interested in what we do in the restaurant."
An appearance on E.W. Scripps Co.'s Food Network is coveted by chefs as a way of generating more business at their restaurants. Some have seen an immediate increase in traffic once they're on the network, which as of last year was available in 85 million households, up from 6.5 million when it was launched in 1993. While ratings are low compared with broadcast outlets the debut "Iron Chef" episode garnered a puny 1.24 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research viewers are more likely to be restaurant goers.
Raymond Coen, a restaurant consultant who divides his time between Palm Desert and Pacific Palisades, said television can be crucial to keeping momentum behind a restaurant. "You need to be talking with (customers) all the time because people forget about you," he said.
But Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant consultant, said loyal customers can be turned off by hyped-up chefs. "If you are promoting backyard grills and your restaurant is five-star and $100 a person, it could do damage," said Wolf. "You really want your restaurant chef to be kind of a serious, good cook and not somebody flipping knifes on TV."
With the scheduling demands of television, another danger is that TV chefs will stray from their core restaurant business. "People tend to merge the restaurant with the public persona that is on TV," said Ron Gorodesky, a restaurant consultant with Blue Bell, Pa.-based Restaurant Advisory Services who works with chef Jim Coleman of the PBS show "Flavors of America."
Armstrong, who is about to open a Table 8 location in Miami, can learn volumes about leveraging business and media appearances from Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, for whom he worked at L.A.'s now-defunct City restaurant.
Feniger and Milliken, owners of Santa Monica's Border Grill and downtown's Ciudad, co-hosted "Two Hot Tamales" on the Food Network in the 1990s.
"There's no question the media has a huge impact on business," Feniger said. "All of a sudden you might be busy on a Monday night."
Armstrong said he has already been featured in Florida newspapers in advance of the Table 8 opening, and he's heard from long-lost acquaintances after the "Iron Chef America" episode aired last month.
For restaurateurs wanting to cultivate a sophisticated customer base, newspaper and magazine articles written by notable critics are the preferred exposure.
"When we appear in magazines and newspapers, there is always a very, very noticeable response," said Elizabeth Balkind, the pastry chef at L.A.'s high-end Grace restaurant.
Balkind is wary of television. Although her recipes have been featured on a Food Network show called "Inside Dish," she doesn't seek television appearances.
"I am a little bit iffy about the push to make celebrities out of chefs," she said. "I feel like it's important for a chef to be at their place of work. If you get swept up in celebrity you tend to be pulled away from it."
And sometimes the chef can become larger than the restaurant.
The experience of Rocco DiSpirito, the chef featured on NBC's "The Restaurant," is often mentioned as a worst-case scenario. DiSpirito chased fame during the show's two seasons, but the New York restaurant he cooked at 22nd Street was badly mismanaged, closing last year. "Rocco wanted to be a star and was busy going to parties instead of cooking," said Wolf.
Television stardom can be fleeting, too. When it's gone, chefs have to rely on quality food if they want to keep their tables full. "If there is a big buzz around a restaurant, and you go and it is lousy, the buzz dies down, and that is called empty," Wolf said.
For his part, Armstrong said that by cautiously proceeding with television projects and restaurant expansion, he can remain dedicated to preparing great food. "I love to cook, and I am super passionate about that," he said.
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