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.
Lewis Fein writes about branding, marketing and media relations, among other things. His commentary has been featured on CNBC, KABC Radio, Fox Business News and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Emory University School of Law.