During the bleakest months of the pandemic lockdown, Shep Gordon was stuck at home, wondering if he should finally get back in the game. A Hollywood veteran who managed Teddy Pendergrass and Alice Cooper at the height of their careers, and who carved out time on the side to earn the title of “inventor of the celebrity chef,” Gordon was worried about his friends in the restaurant industry. Businesses were vanishing at a staggering clip. People were cooking at home more than ever before. The biggest names in food took to hosting demos on Instagram Live, while fresh, impassioned voices began to lead the conversation about the culinary world’s future and its systemic flaws, which the crisis had laid bare: a climate of loss, upheaval, possibility.
“I just didn’t think I could make much of a contribution,” said Gordon, 76, speaking by phone on a recent afternoon.
Then the TV producer Brian Bedol came calling. He wanted to pitch Gordon on an app that he was building with Elana Karp, the former head chef and cofounder of Plated, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! executive producer Doug DeLuca: Think of the platform, Kittch, as a cross between Twitch, Instagram, and OnlyFans, except that chefs are the only stars and, mercifully, there’s less nudity. In the ’90s, Bedol had the zany idea to create a network devoted entirely to airing sports games that had already taken place. He faced significant skepticism about what eventually would become ESPN Classic (not to mention the second channel, CBS Sports Network). Around the same time, Gordon also plowed ahead with what some onlookers considered a dubious ambition: to change the public’s perception of chefs from craftsmen eternally chained to their stoves, even after they’d reached the top of their profession, to certifiable brands.
Still, Bedol didn’t have his hopes up. “Shep has heard it and seen it all, and I was aware of the fact that he has spent the last two decades turning down almost every opportunity to return to the food business in an official capacity,” he said. But Bedol immediately hooked the man insiders call Supermensch; Gordon is now one of Kittch’s key investors and advocates. (As of this writing, LeBron James and Maverick Carter of LRMR are the latest big names to join the investor pool.) “I really do believe this is going to shape the next phase of the celebrity chef,” Gordon says, “particularly for unfinanced personalities who have talent but don’t want to follow the traditional path.”
On Kittch, which pushed out a beta version in November and launches in full today, established names like Daniela Soto-Innes, Marcus Samuelsson, and Chris Bianco, as well as emerging talents without brick-and-mortar operations, can livestream classes and conversations, using picture-in-picture to offer viewers multiple perspectives of the action; build an archive of recipes and videos; and monetize their output through a direct-to-consumer marketplace. They can also charge users for perks like the opportunity to sit at the “chef’s table” during a demo. This feature allows community members to interact with the host without having to worry that their questions will get buried under an avalanche of comments, as might happen on Instagram Live.
“As a chef, you have to know every platform, learn how to use every platform, and then be able to rise above the noise of all the competing industries on those platforms,” said Karp, who also serves as Kittch’s COO, of the problem her team wishes to solve. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Karp joined Plated, an early player in the meal-kit-delivery landscape, because she felt there were other ways to apply her skills. “This is an opportunity to enable more chefs to explore those other routes and to make money doing what they love.”
Kittch has its own micro-currency, “clams,” which translate to real dollars.
“None of these chefs really made a living,” says Gordon of his motivations three decades ago. “Charlie Trotter had a two-year wait list in Chicago, but he still couldn’t afford to cover his kid’s education.” But what most bothered Gordon—who credits his late friend, the French chef Roger Vergé, with saving him from the fate that befell many of the hard-living artists he helped turn into stars—was that these giants were often treated with little respect whenever they’d travel to culinary events together. It became the agent and manager’s mission to change that.
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