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America's Most Successful Chefs

Posted: 05/18/2011 4:45 pm

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How much money do chefs make? According to Nation's Restaurant News, the leading U.S. food-service trade magazine, the average annual salary for an executive chef at a stand-alone restaurant in 2010 was $71,063. All together, now: Do you think that's what Mario Batali takes home? Do you reckon that's how many bucks Guy Fieri pays taxes on each year? Yeah, sure.

The rules are different for celebrity chefs -- first of all, simply because they're celebrities and hence demand the big bucks, but also because, without exception, the most financially successful ones do lots of things at once. In fact -- spoiler alert -- very few of them ever actually cook in their own kitchens anymore. They're far too busy thinking up and launching new restaurants (and even, like Charlie Palmer, hotels), writing cookbooks, developing (or lending their names to) products of various kinds, and of course appearing on TV... The most successful chefs in America aren't just chefs -- they're entrepreneurs, they're brands. Sometimes they're virtually whole industries. Being Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, or José Andrés isn't just a job: It's a way of life.

With that in mind, we thought it would be fun -- and even maybe educational -- to try to figure how many clams some of our nation's most famous culinary celebrities actually rake in. How much, in other words, do these guys (and occasionally gals, like Paula Deen and Barbara Lynch) get paid?

In drawing up our list of chefs, we decided first of all that they must actually be chefs, in the sense of having run restaurant kitchens and built their careers from there. Sorry, Rachael. Tough luck, Alton. We've included a few citizens of other countries (Alain Ducasse and Jamie Oliver among them) because they have restaurants and/or TV shows in America, though the bulk of their businesses are elsewhere.

In order to obtain accurate, up-to-date income figures for these fabulous food folk, we bribed an IRS official and obtained copies of their personal tax returns.

Oh, all right, no we didn't. Step back from that ledge, Gordon Ramsay. Just take a deep breath, Bobby Flay.

In fact, our researchers consulted Experian (through LexisNexis), the Orbis International Financial Database, and BookScan. We considered net worth rankings and previous salary estimates from Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and several trade publications. We scoured the popular press for news stories and rumors. Then we called up savvy restaurant pros (not the kinds who'd make the list) and got their feedback, threw in a pinch of common sense, and calculated what we believe to be a reasonable approximation of each chef's personal income for 2010.

Though we're confident that we got relative scale right, we admit that the actual figures might be merely ballpark -- so, sorry kids, but no dollar amounts here. Suffice to say that the range extends from six figures to eight. Oh, and if you're on the list and think we've put you in the wrong position -- or if you're not on the list but think you should be -- you know where to send those tax returns that we couldn't get from the guy at the IRS.

Below, the 10 Most Successful Chefs in America. (Visit The Daily Meal to see the rest of the list.)

- Colman Andrews, The Daily Meal

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#1 Wolfgang Puck
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Though Puck, whose name is synonymous with "California Cuisine," has worked the celebrity angle hard, his endlessly creative takes on a multitude of cuisines, from pizza to Asian food, still earn him the respect of the food world. As enterprising as they come, Puck can boast 21 fine dining restaurants around the nation, numerous cookbooks, a TV career that has included appearances on Frasier, Las Vegas, and The Simpsons as well as a cooking-show Emmy, and lines of food products, cookware, and appliances (among them a coffeemaker and the coffee pods to go with it). He has even made forays into fast(ish) food with more than 50 Wolfgang Puck Express locations in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. Just one of his enterprises, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, which oversees his casual dining restaurants and food products, is estimated to be worth over $400 million, and some estimates of the total annual income generated by his various concerns reach more than twice that.

Recipe: Wolfgang Puck's Vegetable Paella
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