The profession offers more possibilities than ever; shouldn’t our language reflect that?
As a new decade splays before us, it seemed like a logical time to share a few thoughts about where things are headed in Chef Land.
For a while now, it’s been unavoidable that the profession has undergone so many genetic-level changes that the very vocabulary we use to describe it could use a freshening.
It’s not the first time: Restaurants had pastry departments long before they had pastry chefs, a designation that became necessary to distinguish those who specialize in the sweet stuff; in growing restaurant empires, where the figurehead is rarely running or even present at most locations, many who today are titled chef de cuisine would have been classified as sous chefs as recently as thirty years ago, and not felt the least bit slighted; and nobody could have foreseen the notion of a celebrity chef even just ten years before a handle of some sort became a cultural imperative.
Classically, chef simply meant the leader (literally, “chief”) of a professional kitchen. In the United States and throughout the West, most of their repertories were interchangeable, whether at a “fancy” French restaurant, or a neighborhood joint trading in (at the time) less celebrated, almost surely less appreciated cuisines.
That model began to morph, dramatically, about a half-century ago as cooking became more individualist and expressive. In the last decade, give or take, as the industry has waken up to the brutality of the work and unforgiving financial model, some newly minted toques and veterans alike began seeking new ways to be a chef, including even without a restaurant. Concurrently, others–born into a world where the expressive possibilities of the medium have long been a given–increasingly pushed the boundaries of that dimension.
Add it all up and being a chef means more things, to a greater variety of people, than ever before. Having a vocabulary to discuss them and their work, or just make sense of an ever-more-complex landscape, might be helpful moving forward. With that in mind, here’s a working set of chef–categories, a first-pass of ways to think about the profession as we move forward into a new decade:
The Specialist – When French cuisine and fine dining dominated the restaurant landscape, evaluating individual chefs was a breeze–they who made the most exquisite pike quenelles, veal Orloff, and potatoes Dauphine ruled the day. Behind the swinging doors, a kitchen expectation was that the chef was the most knowledgeable about, and proficient at, what was considered a standard, non-negotiable arsenal of recipes and techniques, essentially serving as the house Obi-Wan. Today, some of the most lauded and popular foods are turned out by passionate experts who specialize in one genre or technique, whether it’s the barbecue of Will Durney or Aaron Franklin, Johnny Ray Zone’s Nashville hot chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s in Los Angeles, or obsessive pizzaiolos like Razza’s Dan Richer and Pizzana’s Daniele Uditi. Are these single-subject practitioners still chefs? Of course they are. It’s no longer a debit to not have attended cooking school or not to have logged years memorizing and mastering the scales–knowing how to play a few notes or chords extraordinarily well is more than enough.
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The Artist – Is cooking an art or a craft? It’s a topic we’ve been fortunate to explore on my podcast with chefs and experts ranging from Massimo Bottura to Alex Stupak to … Phil Rosenthal. (Fun fact: Only one of them, Rosenthal, netted out at “art.”) To summarize the prevailing collective chef opinion: Food’s primary function is to nourish and sustain, with a close/distant second being to give pleasure. It’s fine for food to attempt to evoke an emotion or to teach, but that’s strictly elective. That said, there are chefs who have made art their primary goal, and readily advocate for it as such. Jenny Dorsey of Studio ATAO comes to mind, as do chefs whose food has an unmistakably artistic bent like Dominique Crenn, or despite his own personal opinion on the matter, Bottura himself.
The Popper-Upper – Can one be a chef without a restaurant? Increasingly the answer is a no-brainer–YES! On one end of the spectrum, there’s the large-scale, traveling international roadshow of Outstanding in the Wild. On the other there, are independent chefs, like Paul Liebrandt who, since leaving Brooklyn’s The Elm a few years back, has been mostly functioning in residencies at restaurants like Racine’s and Chefs Club NY, and participating in collaborative dinners with chefs like Ryan McCaskey. Of course, Flynn McGarry, now installed at Gem in New York City, made his name in his Eureka pop-ups in LA and Manhattan. And countless young chefs have honed their restaurant concepts in pop-ups, from Jonathan Wu of the dear, departed Fung Tu to Sayat and Laura Ozyilmaz of San Francisco’s Noosh (who unfortunately have been embroiled in a protracted drama with the restaurant’s owner) to Nico Russell of Brooklyn’s Oxalis.
The Conservationist – Whether in generous enterprises like Food for Soul’s international network of refettorios (soup kitchens) or in waste-minimizing restaurants like Matt Orlando‘s Amass in Copenhagen, or in statement-making projects like Dan Barber’s Wasted, these chefs forge new ground in using as much (i.e., wasting as little) as possible–from plant and animal parts to water, shipping containers, and paper. In the win-win department, these practices aren’t just good for the planet, they also (sometimes after initial investments are recouped) have the promise of drastically reducing operating and food costs.
The Anthropologist – Whether sharing deeply of their own personal story, reflecting a diaspora, or simply exploring the nooks and crannies of a particular region or cuisine–or combining two or more of those goals–chefs such as Mashama Bailey, Ashley Christensen, Kelly Fields, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, JJ Johnson, Kwame Onwuachi, Michael Solomonov, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, and countless others, have brought an edge of education and provocation to their menus.
The Classicist – A chef who happily stays in a traditional lane, faithfully executing a roster of dishes handed down to us all by prior generations. Sometimes, praise and appreciation for these toques is scant and stingy, because they don’t shock palates or raise eyebrows, but their food is often more soul-stirring than the cerebral, inventive, visually arresting competition that dominates on social and traditional media. Many chefs who trade in Italian food fall into this camp, such as Portland, Oregon’s Cathy Whims. Obviously, there are no shortage of bistros and brasseries that proudly fly the French culinary flag. And as diners become more sophisticated, curious, and inclusive, no cuisine is beyond the grasp of a chef interested in sharing it.
The Herbivore – Long before the Hollywood Foreign Press served up a plant-based dinner at this week’s Golden Globe Awards, plenty of chefs were operating in that mode, and the list has only grown longer and more compelling. From Amanda Cohen‘s playfulness at Dirt Candy to Brooks Headley’s vegetal riffs on what’s been traditionally considered fast food at Superiority Burger to Tal Ronnen’s celebrity-pleasing vegan menu at LA’s Crossroads Kitchen, these chefs have found new ways of making meatless cuisine satisfying on every level.
The Entertainer – Whether it’s a cutting-edge modernist flourish like the green-apple helium balloon at Alinea, or an involved, traditional production such as the tableside duck press at Pasjoli; a legend like Patrick O’Connell being introduced as the “Pope of American Cuisine” by a waiter dressed as an altar boy (swaying a smoking thurible) at the pass of The Inn at Little Washington or Jordan Kahn’s immersive theatrics at Vespertine–what unifies all these chefs is that they weave an element of showmanship into their food, their restaurants, or both. The result is, effectively, as a friend of mine once smiled at Eleven Madison Park (where the magic was mostly sparked by the template shattering inventiveness of restaurateur Will Guidara, who’s since moved on): “Dinner … and a show.”
The Historian – Classicists adhere to the tried and true canon of a particular cuisine; historians delve into the culinary past, to teach through food. At Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago, which changes its theme/focus three times a year, menus have recreated the glories of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, Paris 1906, and even the Bocuse d’Or competition–one meal inspired food writer Sam Sifton to scrawl the words TIME TRAVEL in his notebook at the end. (His work on the Paris 1906 menu inspired former Next chef de cuisine Dave Beran‘s mostly classic French cuisine at his Pasjoli in Santa Monica, California.) The effect is something like an edible museum, which is literally what’s produced at Corey Lee’s In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the menu is a periodically shifting, complementary roster of notable dishes by influential chefs. Expect more homages and exhibitions along both of these lines in the coming years.
The Hunter-Gatherer – Whether they brave the wild themselves, or rely on a network of culinary Indiana Joneses to deliver it to their kitchen door, these chefs are animated by the challenge of making order from what nature offers up, often underscoring or revealing essential local truths or introducing diners to previously uncontemplated foodstuffs. Whether it’s René Redzepi’s occasionally nomadic Noma, Iliana Regan‘s midwestern explorations at Elizabeth, or the adventurous resourcefulness of Fjolla Sheholli and Junayd Juman at Brooklyn’s Honey Badger, there’s no telling what you might be introduced to on their plates: mold, bugs, unfamiliar plants and animals … when they find the sweet spot, their food stimulates the mind with minimal visible fuss or ego–an irresistible combination.
The Genre Buster – These chefs are to restaurants what Quentin Tarantino is to any number of movie genres–restless re-inventors of the familiar. Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone have made a career of playing around with the conventions of red-sauce Italian eateries (Carbone), coastal Italian retreats (Santina), and even the very specific reference points of The Four Seasons (The Grill and The Pool). In Westchester County, NY, Dave Di Bari brings a stoner sensibility to the American diner at Eugene’s in Port Chester, NY. And, we take it for granted now but David Chang made his bones reinventing the noodle bar with the first Momofuku. By tinkering with cultural touchstones we all take for granted, they make us see, and taste, the world in fun, new ways and wake up our imaginations.
The Lifer – It’s no longer a given that a chef will keep cooking for their entire career. More than ever, young people enter the profession with their sights firmly set on television, live appearances, books, product lines, fast-casual concepts, consultancies, and so on. (In my humble opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this. Things change.) In that context, it’s perhaps worth designating those for whom the kitchen is and always will be enough.
The Dynamic Duo – There have always been a handful of lovebirds who function as co-chefs, but more recently, platonic chef-pairings have become more commonplace than ever before: Frenchette’s Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr have been joined at the hip since the launch of Balthazar; Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Van Hauske make beautiful magic at Contra and Wildair; as do Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer at King, where both lunch and dinner menus change daily. What’s remarkable is that these teams’ kitchen produce food that has a specific, unified point of view with no seams showing.
How did I do? What did I miss, or get wrong? What other categories might emerge in the coming years? Would love to hear your thoughts. Hit me up by email, or in the comments to this post on Instagram.
Oh, and, Happy New Year … may 2020 be good to us all.