Celebrity chefs can be deemed public figures, which means they are vulnerable to criticism, protests, boycotts, and lawsuits.

If there is a food for every feeling and an ideal way for chefs to feed our feelings, where vengeance is cold and love is rich and sensuous, then celebrity is a separate—and more difficult—meal to cook or eat. For a chef who is a celebrity whose persona precedes his performance in the kitchen, whose personality is the product not of what he does in person but how people view his on-screen performances; for a celebrity chef whose fame is a risk that exceeds its rewards, whose rewards blind him to the risks that threaten his life as a professional and the livelihoods of his workers and investors, that chef must have a lawyer in his kitchen, so to speak. A lawyer must be there before fame turns into infamy, not after accusations or admissions of wrongdoing ruin a chef’s reputation.

A lawyer can only be there if a chef wants him to be there: to counsel him by cautioning him about the price of fame. If the chef is a brand unto himself, with a chain of restaurants and production deals—with his name and signature on every jar of his own line of soups and sauces—if he signs his name to cookbooks and hosts a TV show named after him, he may have many lawyers to handle his business affairs; but that does not mean he has a lawyer to deal with affairs that influence more than his businesses. Which is to say a celebrity chef needs to consider the variables of fame.

According to Wayne R. Cohen, a professor at The George Washington University School of Law and a Washington, DC injury claims attorney, good publicity is not necessarily a good worth pursuing—not when celebrity is not cost-free. He says:

Celebrity chefs can be deemed public figures, which means they are vulnerable to criticism, protests, boycotts, and lawsuits. Such is the nature of being a celebrity, which is a volatile and sometimes costly ingredient. It is important for celebrity chefs, like others, to understand the law.

I agree with that assessment, not because I also have a law degree, but because I understand how a crisis can become a legal catastrophe. I understand how, through a combination of naïveté and neglect, a chef can mistake celebrity as a way to repel critics, rebuff criticism, and reject all efforts to critique his behavior in and outside the kitchen.

What chefs need to understand is that celebrity is not a form of immunity, legal or otherwise, because no amount of fame can prevent a judge or jury from awarding damages in the amount of tens of millions of dollars. Nor can fame protect a chef from public shame and private boycotts. It can neither silence protestors nor shield a chef from sanctions.

To lower the flame of controversy by letting it cool before it spills over—to contain it by having a lawyer control it—is a recipe every celebrity chef should follow.

Expert Takes, Feature, Legal