We all dream about the road to fame and how to achieve the coveted status of stardom and success that appears to be a breeze for famous foodies we see daily on Food Network shows and featured prominently in culinary publications. In light of our culture’s infatuation with celebrity culture, it’s hard not to wonder about how some of our favorite celebrity chefs made it to the upper echelons of the food industry. The mythos surrounding these famous foodies will be thoroughly unveiled by this laundry list of unconventional stories all leading to the path to success.
Truly, it's nothing short of inspiring to hear about past job failures, unexpected revelations, and wildly unplanned career moves that end up becoming the foundations for a successful career. I mean, who would ever guess about the story of a famous foodie that leaped from accounting to international runway model to chef! By the end of this list, you’ll be convinced that even you could someday end up on the cover of your own cookbook or star in your very own Food Network television show!
While some of the biographies of these household names seem to be extraordinary journeys that only the Divine Fates themselves could weave together, most are humbling and bring these culinary stars a little closer to earth and the rest of us regular folk. So, let’s take a journey, a blast from the past, to look at the origins of household names and reveal the murky paths they weeded through to become the successes we know them as today!
19 Nigella Lawson, Publisher
Nigella Lawson experienced a proper upbringing in the heart of London. Lawson found herself enamored with books and writing at an early age, which eventually inspired her to attend Lady Margaret Hall College at Oxford University. Lawson’s love of literature culminated in a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages, and from then on, Nigella pursued a bright career in publishing.
It wasn’t until a writing gig as food critic at The Spectator in the mid-1980s that Nigella’s interest in culinary arts was awakened. Lawson eventually found herself food editor for British Vogue magazine after a stint at The New York Times. Since then, Lawson has applied her writing skills to producing a number of publications related to her personal philosophy of food, including How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food in 1998.
18 Alton Brown, Cinematographer Extraordinaire
As a youth, the ultra-charismatic Alton Brown never envisioned his role as the diabolical host of The Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, as hard as that is to believe! The theatrical host got his chops studying in Film School, where upon graduation, Brown pursued a career as a cinematographer! Director Brown even got into the music video industry with an iconic R.E.M. hit on his resume! Pretty cool! I mean, who else can brag that they directed The One I Love?!
After tiring of the film industry, Brown continued his success by creating and hosting the show Good Eats, an educational show focusing on the science behind the meal, which ran from 1999-2011 and got a reboot in 2018.
17 Martha Stewart, Wall Street Tiger
Martha is a one-woman wonder, so it should be no surprise that the maven of entertaining got her start as a cutthroat stockbroker. Stewart received her start in finance in 1967, long before she ever launched what would become her incredible empire. After a lengthy home renovation project on a 19thcentury Connecticut farmhouse, Stewart became enticed by the idea of an entrepreneurial venture in the world of homemaking.
Stewart’s initial inspiration has since generated a sprawling empire in culinary literature, home décor, and television we all know and love her for. Even a stint in jail can’t stop Martha from pursuing her own brand of success, and she's since effectively used her ‘street cred’ to form an unlikely alliance with rap mogul Snoop Dogg; they even have a new television show: Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party!
16 Gordon Ramsay, Soccer Star
Before the heydays of breathing fire down other chefs’ necks and reducing seasoned professionals to tears on hit shows like Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay aspired to become one of Scotland’s first-rate soccer players. From the earliest days of recollection, Gordon relates how he lived and breathed soccer until an unfortunate injury cut his dreams short.
While Ramsay has greatly embellished his role with the Scotland's Soccer Association, it does appear that Glasgow Rangers actually scouted the Hell’s Kitchen host as a teen. Unfortunately, the Food Network superstar suffered a debilitating knee injury, and seeing his aspirations slip away, Ramsay headed back to school to obtain a degree in hotel management.
15 Ree Drummond, Ballerina
With an adorable cheeky smile and an energy that makes you want to get up and cook something amazing, it's no wonder that in her youth, Ree was a trained ballerina dancer! Dancing was an early love for the Alabama-borne blogger, and Drummond was even a member of her Alabama Ballet Company, performing in classic productions such as The Nutcracker.
That isn’t to say that she isn't still able to bust a move, as is evidenced in her many enthusiastic Instagram posts where fans can still see Ree plié for the camera! What’s next for The Pioneer Woman, nobody knows—we might just be seeing the blogging titan on the stage of Dancing With The Stars!
14 Grillmaster Bobby Flay
Notorious King of the Grill Bobby Flay surprisingly found his first gig at Joe Allen Restaurant’s Salad Bar. As a youth, Flay got his start creating salads at the classic Broadway neighbourhood gem thanks to his father’s involvement with the business.
However, grillmaster Flay was no ‘tosser’ with the salads he crafted during his time at Joe Allen’s, and his talents were so impressive that his superiors decided to pay for Bobby to receive formal culinary training at France's Culinary Institute in Manhattan. Young Chef Flay was destined to impress the academy, winning the highly coveted Outstanding Graduate Award upon graduation.
13 Paula Deen, Wallpaper Technician
We all know Paula Deen as the Southern Kween of the Kitchen, but it wasn't until the ripe age of 42 that she got her ‘big break’ in the culinary world when she decided to launch her very own catering company, The Bag Lady. Before that, the Southern Belle had a laundry list of careers including time spent as a wallpaper technician and as a customer-service representative at a banking institution and real estate, to name a few. The author of The Southern Cooking Bible admits that the early loss of her parents by the time she had turned 23 had affected her greatly, and it was cooking that became her salvation.
Not until her catering company received numerous accolades including “International Best Meal of the Year” did Paula receive her big break on the Food Network in 2002. After so much early professional turmoil, it appears that perseverance paid off in Paula’s case!
12 Guy Fieri, Pretzel Cart Entrepreneur
The frost-tipped host of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives made his entrepreneurial debut at the ripe age of 10. While most kids build soap box cars with their fathers, Guy and his dad built a custom pretzel cart that Fieri proudly wheeled up and down the boulevards of Ferndale, California. By the time Guy turned sixteen, he had saved up enough money selling pretzels to fund his own culinary adventure in France, where he studied for a year before returning to the U.S. to pursue a degree in hospitality management.
After several successful ventures in the biz, the rock-’n-rolling restaurateur had his big break in 2005 after he was drafted to The Next Food Network Star. A true tale of humble origins, Fieri’s trajectory as a celebrity chef is nothing short of inspirational.
11 Brian Boitano, Olympic Figure Skater
Hailing from Sunny California, Brian Boitano lays claim to four consecutive champion titles in U.S. figure skating nationals. The host of Food Network’s What Would Brian Boitano Make? also competed in the 1984 Winter Olympics, placing fifth overall. He would continue to compete professionally, his efforts culminating in a gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Now officially recognized in both the World and U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fames, Boitano continues to wow television audiences through his passion for entertaining and cooking! Looks like Boitano is no one-trick pony—check out his heavenly recipe for a coffee and donuts shake!
10 Anthony Bourdain, Dishwasher
It’s hard to argue against the idea that Anthony Bourdain has seen and done all there is to do in the world of culinary adventures, so it seems fitting that the host of The Mind of a Chef got his start at the lowliest bottom rung of the ladder as a dishwasher in New York.
After watching Boudain indulge in some of the most absurd culinary luxuries depicted on No Reservations and knowing his highly questionable policy of absolutely avoiding ingesting food served on a plane, it brings the egoistic CNN food journalist closer to the ‘little people’ to think of him working late nights, covered in leftover bits of food, scrubbing the pots and pans of chefs that he'd later go on to profile in his many successful television shows and books.
9 Rachael Ray, Macy's Counter Girl
As a teenager growing up in a New York household full of family members in the restaurant business, it seems the bubbly brunette was destined to cook. The Ray family has successful restaurants all over Connecticut and New York, and the syndicated daytime television host admits she feels she was born to be around food.
However, it’s hard to miss the irony in Rachael Ray’s first job. As a highly successful chef, television host, and author, to name a few of her titles, Rachael Ray features a branded line of cookware exclusive to the same company she worked for as a youth: Macy’s! Teenage Ray was slinging candy across the counter of America’s favorite department store before she had the insatiable urge to move closer to her familial roots and pursue a culinary career.
8 Sandra Lee, Infomercial Host
Sanda Lee is highly acclaimed for her relaxed philosophy on food. Lee's Semi-Homemade method of combining pre-packaged and fresh ingredients was designed to encourage audiences to give themselves some slack while cooking in the kitchen. However, it's lesser known that Lee had roots with QVC Home Shopping Network as an infomercial host selling a line of DIY curtain hardware called "Kurtain Kraft" at the young age of 27.
After the home decor company exploded into a multimillion-dollar venture, Lee stayed true to her own style when she was approached by the Food Network for her very own show. The Good Morning America contributor insisted on incorporating ‘tablescaping’ design elements into the 2003 launch of Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sanda Lee, which became an inspiring take on balancing health, budget, and time while cooking in the home kitchen.
7 Trisha Yearwood, Country Music Star
Most of her foodie fans know Trisha from her Food Network show Trisha’s Southern Kitchen or from her many Southern-family-style cookbooks, but if you’ve never turned on the country music station on the radio, you might not be aware that Trisha Yearwood is a highly accomplished country music star. Beginning in 1989, Yearwood recorded several songs with future husband Garth Brooks, and the two toured together for the first time on Brooks’ 1991 nationwide tour.
Her first hit single “She’s In Love with the Boy” topped the Billboard Country Music charts. Since then she's released several albums and piled up multiple Grammy awards. It was only much later in Yearwood’s career that her talents in the kitchen were finally recognized with her Food Network launch in 2012. Check out some of Trisha’s specialties here.
6 Sunny Anderson, Sonic’s Server
If you’ve ever been embarrassed by your first job, Sunny Anderson can seriously relate. The Food Network star legitimately wore the iconic retro roller skates and served at the infamous San Antonio Sonic’s! While serving up burgers to hungry customers, Sunny found her eyes and heart straying towards the kitchen, where all the real action was happening. Pursuing her culinary ambitions, Sunny eventually upgraded to a gig making dough at Little Ceasar’s–talk about humble origins!
Not only was Sunny a serial fast-food chain employee; she also tried her hand as a radio DJ when she moved to New York City. Rocking the airwaves with her silky smooth vocals while running a catering business at the same time eventually landed Sunny a guest interview with The Food Network’s Emeril Live when an agent discovered her on the radio. Before Sunny knew it, she had landed herself her own cooking show on the Food Network!
5 April Bloomfield, Beat Cop
In the world of culinary heavyweights, April Bloomfield is credited with sparking the gastro-pub revolution in New York City. However, while growing up on the other side of the pond, Bloomfield never saw herself as a Michelin-starred restaurateur but rather dreamed of becoming a cop on the beat back in her home city of London, England.
Bloomfield’s childhood ambition was inspired by something she witnessed as a young girl on the playground when she saw a purse snatching! Ever since then, Bloomfield has dreamt of being a hero capable of saving the day and intervening wherever crime manifests. But after being relegated to parking patrol, Bloomfield gave up her dreams and began a fresh start in the world of culinary arts.
4 Richard Blais: Want Fries With That?
The Food Network star isn’t ashamed to admit that his first job was serving up hot burgers and fries at one of the many golden arches dotting Long Island. A quintessential American boy, the now-slender-framed Blais donned his visor and headset as a teenager. Growing up in a lower-income household with two hardworking parents provided a positive role model for Blais to forge his own path to success.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Blais learned a tough lesson with the closing of his first restaurant venture, Blais. The top chef opted for change, got on the marathon circuit, dropped 60 pounds, and decided to compete in Top Chef: All-Stars, where he eventually won the entire competition. From McDonald's to Food Network Hall of Fame, Blais has certainly seen the top and bottom rungs of the gastronomic ladder!
3 Melissa d’Arabian, Corporate Finance
The energetic personality of Melissa d’Arabian always brightens up the day. Whether it’s through her brilliant ideas on Ten Dollar Dinner or in her best-selling books, the winner of Food Network Star (2009) is a perfect foodie celebrity. Before joining the ranks of famous foodies, however, d’Arabian tried her hand at cruise ship entertainment before pursuing higher education at Georgetown University. The M.B.A. graduate and best-selling author of MORE eventually found herself working in corporate finance for Disney!
It wasn’t until having children that d’Arabian found herself inspired to pursue a career helping families create fresh, healthy meals that won't break the budget. Despite the fact that d’Arabian has no formal training in the kitchen, the healthy cooking advocate hasn't looked back since her breakout on Food Network Star!
2 James Beard, Singer/Actor
Beard is often credited with revolutionizing the perception of American fare through visual content such as the creation of Julia Child’s first televised cooking show. However, in his youth, Beard studied theatre as a young man at Reed College in Portland. After his controversial expulsion, Beard’s mother arranged for her son to travel abroad to Europe for a while before pursuing a career on the stage in New York City.
A string of sporadic, low-paying gigs on stage led Beard to pursue his own backstage catering business fuelled by his lifelong passion for cooking, and after a short while, the founder of the prestigious James Beard Award Foundation claims he realized his true calling was in the food industry.
1 Julia Child, 007
Everyone always dreams of what it would be like to be a spy back in the good old days of wiretapping and Film Noir; however, records show that the Kitchen Kween Julia Child actually lived the fantasy, working in an international spy ring before debuting her hallmark career in the kitchen.
The homemaking aficionado maintained a devious double life, which was officially revealed in a release by the National Archives, which contains documents including Child’s application to the Office of Strategic Services under her maiden name, McWilliams. The agency appeared to be more than happy to welcome Child into their fold, citing a strong build and an excellent demeanor for clerical work–along with whatever else an agent is responsible for!