He’s the Man Who Sets the Table
JON ROSEN, agent for a particular brand of talent, was watching the screen, judging.
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From top, Food Network, Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images, Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images, Evan Agostini/AP, Robert Curtis/Food Network
CLIENTS Jonathan Rosen has helped bring the world, from top to bottom, Claire Robinson, Katie Lee Joel, Bobby Flay, Al Roker, Daisy Martinez, and Giada De Laurentiis shown with Mr. Rosen.
Another agent wanted Mr. Rosen’s opinion on a woman he was thinking of signing. The woman, Claire Robinson, a former television producer, had sent a DVD of herself demonstrating a recipe as she pursued her dream of having her own show on the Food Network.
Within minutes Mr. Rosen had seen enough.
“Lock her up,” he recalled saying that day last August. “She’s going to be a star. She pops off the screen. Sign her today.”
This weekend, the third episode of Ms. Robinson’s show, “5 Ingredient Fix,” will be shown on the Food Network.
Mr. Rosen, 39, knows what he is talking about. He heads the “branded lifestyle” group at the William Morris Agency in New York and is agent to a pantheon of stars in food show business, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Al Roker, Katie Lee Joel and Giada De Laurentiis among them, many of whom credit him for the scope of their success.
With “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and dozens of cooking shows commanding top ratings, and the shelves of mass market retailers crowded with Rachael Ray knives and Bobby Flay blenders, it is easy to forget that celebrity chefs did not always hold tenderizing mallets over American culture. Jon Rosen’s name may not be familiar, but he is the force behind a lot of the food entertainment on television and celebrity-endorsed kitchen products on shelves — and perhaps even what you eat for dinner. If agents were chefs, he’d be Thomas Keller.
“He has been a huge part of building what is not just my business and my career, but something that is home to so many friends — a magazine, a talk show, all these different product lines,” said Ms. Ray, the earthy, relentlessly chipper kitchen presence who was No. 76 on the 2008 Forbes list of most powerful celebrities, with $18 million in annual earnings. “It wouldn’t be this story without Jon.”
The stocky Mr. Rosen — taking calls, asking his assistant to hold all calls, striding the halls of William Morris with paperwork in hand — is like a prowling bear in a sharp blue Tom Ford suit and shiny loafers.
On a recent Monday, he was pulled into a mélange of meetings and a noisy lunch at a restaurant partly owned by Mr. Flay. His assistant repeatedly popped his head into his office to announce callers: “I have Giada for you.”
“Do you need Katie Lee?” Josh, the assistant, asked later.
Mr. Rosen started his career out of college at Boston University working as an intern at the Broadway-oriented Fifi Oscard agency. When an aunt who was an actress helped him find a job in the William Morris mailroom, where would-be agents traditionally start, the salary was not enough to support him, so he took a second job working as a stockboy at a Macy’s in New Jersey.
He became an agent in 1997. A year later he helped another agent negotiate a deal between a cookbook author and the fledgling Food Network.
The timing was perfect. Mr. Rosen was looking for a source of untapped talent, clients whose careers he could help shape, helping them and himself. He realized that food celebrities were giving viewers something useful — recipes, zesting tips — that could have huge marketing potential.
“I don’t view these people as chefs,” Mr. Rosen said. “I view them as lifestyle personalities who we can build great businesses for.”
His first food client was Ming Tsai, the owner of an Asian restaurant in Boston who has become a television personality. Mr. Rosen added Sara Moulton and signed Mr. Flay. Then, about nine years ago, he saw Ms. Ray during her first season on the Food Network. She was represented only by her lawyer. Mr. Rosen called her when she was on vacation in France. “I told her I felt like her personality translated directly across the screen and made you feel like she was in the room with you,” he said.
As the stars of Ms. Ray and of the Food Network rose, so did Mr. Rosen’s.
Brooke Johnson, president of the Food Network, said: “Jon was instrumental in turning these chefs into A-list celebrities through choosing appropriate endorsements, merchandising deals, venues, etc., to build their brands. It was trailblazing.”
Mr. Rosen is not a fast-talking schmooze machine like the fictional agent Ari Gold on “Entourage.” Raised in Leonia, N.J., in a home where money was sometimes short, he “has a little bit of street edge in him,” said Henry Reisch, a senior vice president in charge of William Morris’s broadcast division. “Some of us are more refined.”
When Mr. Rosen went to Mr. Flay’s Bar Americain on West 52nd Street for lunch, he was treated as royalty. The kitchen sent over a free trio of shellfish cocktails.
Mr. Rosen discussed the challenges he has faced in persuading some television executives to allow their talent to branch out into unexpected areas.
“I remember when I had to do that with Rachael Ray and the Food Network when many studios wanted to do a talk show with her,” he said. “We had to bring the Food Network into the process to make them happy, to make CBS happy, to make Rachael happy, to make Oprah Winfrey happy and to continue all that moving forward.”
In 2006, William Morris appointed Mr. Rosen to be head of East Coast Television. And in June 2008, he was appointed to the company board, one of the youngest agents ever to make it there. He also represents the TV hosts Lara Spencer, Cat Deeley and Donnie Deutsch.
Mr. Roker, the “Today” weatherman, became a client in 2007. After he told Mr. Rosen he was a fan of the old game show “Family Feud,” Mr. Rosen forged a deal with a production company, which sold a prime-time version to NBC with Mr. Roker as the host. A number of episodes ran last summer and the network is considering ordering more, Mr. Rosen said.
Mr. Rosen’s own still-rising star makes his group an important cog in talks about a potential merger between William Morris and the Endeavor Agency. Endeavor’s strength is having many A-list Hollywood celebrity clients. William Morris is stronger in television and other areas.
Neither Mr. Rosen nor other William Morris executives would comment on a potential merger.
In the evening after the lunch at Bar Americain, Mr. Rosen was to attend a book signing by Mr. Deutsch, during which Mr. Roker would lead a question-and-answer session with the author. After that, a business dinner was planned at the Waverly Inn with a friend and occasional client, Philip Levine, an entrepreneur.
There is only a vague line between Mr. Rosen’s personal and professional lives. But there is a part of himself rarely displayed to the celebrities he works for. In his office is a guitar autographed by Bruce Springsteen that he bought at a charity auction. He does not play, but he sometimes takes a break to listen to mournful Springsteen songs in his corner office on the 16th floor of the William Morris building on West 53rd Street.
“Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown,” goes a favorite, the song “The Promise.”
“Terry works in a rock ’n’ roll band
Looking for that million-dollar sound
Me I don’t do nothing much,
I spend a lot of time alone.”
Mr. Rosen, who is not married, recently took his mother on a birthday cruise, joined by his older sister. His stepfather died of a heart attack in 1989, and his father, who separated from his mother when Mr. Rosen was 7, died in 2006 of a stroke.
“I have always felt the minute I went into the workplace, it didn’t matter where I was going to go, but I had to be successful,” he said. “There was no fallback for me. I don’t have a fallback in my own mind that if something doesn’t work out I can fall back onto something.”
Ms. Ray said that she has a hard time getting Mr. Rosen to talk about himself, but that she can tell when he is troubled by personal problems and plies him with wine and food until he opens up.
“He doesn’t think of himself as important enough,” Ms. Ray said by telephone between tapings of her show “30 Minute Meals.” “I think he may even have self-worth issues, because he puts himself last all the time.”
But the clients benefit.
“His utter and complete faith in his clients leads him to be bold,” said Suzanne Gluck, one of the heads of the William Morris book division.
She said that when they wanted to attract interest in a book from the chef Daisy Martinez, who was signed by Mr. Rosen in 2006, they brought publishers into the William Morris offices one at a time to sample two dishes prepared by Ms. Martinez — a Mexican chicken and cilantro soup, and a chocolate, coffee and rum mousse.
There were seven bids on the yet-to-be-titled book. Simon and Schuster won.
Ms. Robinson of “5 Ingredient Meals” spent $3,000 of her own money making the demo DVD Mr. Rosen saw. Although the Food Network has committed to only six episodes of her show so far, ratings have been promising. She continues to dream big.
“I wear aprons on every show,” she said by telephone last week. “I could see that being a future product. Also I am really into knives, culinary knives. So I’d love to have my own brand of knives.”
This is what Mr. Rosen has wrought, a world where such dreams might come true. As for himself, his dream seems mostly to be that he never ever has to move to a low-rent apartment in Leonia. He spends many weekends at his house in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island in New Jersey.
“I saw both my father and my stepfather do O.K. for themselves in the upper middle class and lose everything, both at different times in their lives, and never be able to rebound,” he said, after showing a reporter a photo on his desk of his father in his 20s.
“When I think about it, I don’t want that to happen to me.”