Why Chefs & Restaurants Slip from Consciousness More Easily than Other Cultural Figures & Touchstones
Get a few veteran chefs together for long enough, and at some point they’ll lament how many of their most influential predecessors have been lost to the ages, all but unknown to today’s general public, and even to aspiring whisks.
The disappointment is complex and understandable: They were there to see and taste for themselves what their professional ancestors accomplished, recall how vivid and transformative it was, and so can see ripples that others can’t. They revere those who went before them, especially the ones they themselves worked for and learned from and maybe even still consult for advice today. And they know that the best contemporary cooking contains within it a genetic memory of past schools of thought and technique.
And, if past giants can be forgotten, it’s only a matter of time until today’s chefs hop on the conveyor belt to oblivion right behind their heroes. And nobody who’s laid it on the line creatively, and basked in the glow of the spotlight, can fathom that thought
To paraphrase something Bruce Springsteen once crooned, “[They] don’t want to fade away.”
The tendency is to blame this extreme recency bias on a generational failing: “kids today” have a (Bluetooth enabled) umbilical connection to their iPhones, never heard of thank-you notes, and don’t care about history. What a bunch of ingrates!
I’ll admit that where chef history is concerned, I myself used to feel that way. When I first wandered onto the culinary scene in the early 1990s, I didn’t know squat about who’d preceded the toques who were front and center at the time. Some of those people remain firmly in the public eye today: Alfred Portale (whose cookbooks I ended up coauthoring) just opened a new restaurant after a thirty-five year stint at Gotham Bar and Grill, as did Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger in Santa Monica; Jean-Georges Vongerichten is more prolific and omnipresent than ever; Cindy Pawlcyn still casts a long shadow along Route 29 in the Napa Valley; the list goes on and on.
This week on Andrew Talks to Chefs, we’re posting a tribute to the late Jean-Louis Palladin. Palladin was, no exaggeration, one of the most influential chefs working in the United States, from his arrival here in 1979 to his untimely death at age 55, from lung cancer, in 2001. Palladin was an artist on the plate, a sleuth of and catalyst for farmers and purveyors, a cookbook visionary, and by all accounts a tireless worker and party animal. He could be a tyrant in the kitchen, but was warm and generous outside those walls, including to his cooks. Oh, and he had a lust for life that made him a beloved figure to his contemporaries.
But don’t take my word for it. In an interview with the late Anthony Bourdain, Tony told me of an early, late-night encounter with Palladin where, “I knew I was in the presence of a genius.” The now-retired Boston-area chef Jasper White once told me that, “Jean-Louis was a magician. He was the chef of chefs in the US. Forget about the cerebral part of cooking. Let’s just talk about skill. Jean-Louis, if he did a tasting menu for you, he could do as many courses, he could cook as long as you could stand it, he could just keep putting stuff out. But not only would he do a course: If there were four of us at a table, and it’s let’s say the combination was shrimp and corn, he didn’t do one dish with shrimp and corn and all four get it. He did four dishes so you’d have a tasting menu where every course had four different dishes on it. It was mind boggling, but he could accomplish it. And I know it was a flow of creative genius, that it wasn’t something he sat down [to plan].” And a young Thomas Keller used to save up his money to travel from New York City to DC and eat at Jean-Louis at the Watergate twice a year. (In addition to that landmark restaurant, Palladin cheffed for projects in Las Vegas and New York, though they didn’t scale the heights of the DC effort.)
And yet, if you mention the name Jean-Louis Palladin today, most civilians will draw a blank, as will a majority of cooks under 40.
That seems sad, and at some level it is, but those chefs I mentioned up above, the ones still in the public consciousness, all have something in common: They’re still in the game, operating restaurants. That’s what it takes to stay relevant as a chef, as opposed to, say, great authors or musicians, playwrights or movie directors. Because there’s an essential difference between what chefs do and what almost any other creatives do–the work itself is ephemeral. You can’t download it from the iTunes store, watch it on demand, or read it on your Kindle or in paperback. So when chefs retire, or pass away, they take their food with them.
Here’s a funny story: When I first met Jonathan Waxman, in the mid-1990s. I hadn’t heard of him. His seminal New York City restaurant Jams had closed about six years prior, and he wasn’t working in New York City for the time being. Now, he’s more well known than ever. Why? Because he returned in a big way at Barbuto and other restaurants and appeared on Top Chef Masters and other shows and documentaries. But when he was off the grid, he was (quickly) out of sight, and out of mind.
In the grand scheme of things, every restaurant is a pop-up; the only question is how long before it disappears and something else occupies its space or the building that hosted it is repurposed or torn down. Even on a daily basis, the meals served there are gone with the last guest each night and only live in the memories of those who ate them, for as long as those lucky diners roam the earth. That’s poignant, but it also makes each, non-replicable restaurant meal all the more special
Does that mean food history doesn’t matter? Of course not. I don’t know a single chef who doesn’t believe understanding what’s gone before directly impacts what, how, and how well somebody cooks today, and that the best, most compelling restaurant food comes from those who have taken the time to learn about the past.
But it takes extra effort to do that. So, in the “OK Boomer” era, veteran chefs might want to pump the brakes on the reflexive criticism of young cooks who don’t know their history–it only sparks defensiveness and intransigence. Maybe just loan them a few cookbooks that mean something to you, or give them a name to Google every week, or talk about these chefs in your pre-shift meetings once in a while.
For new and aspiring cooks out there, delving into the culinary past rewards the trouble. It puts things in context, including what’s happening right now, and might even drive ideas for the next big thing.
For civilians, culinary history isn’t just about food. It’s about sociology, economics, politics, culture and civics–same as it is today, and will be tomorrow.
And, much as it pains us all to acknowledge it, in time–less time than we’d like–the present will become the past, and a lucky few of those chefs who have broken through today will be remembered by future generations. To those who earn those places, comes the power to help keep our shared culinary heritage alive.