When a Chef Gets Famous

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Photo by Lara Kastner


You have requested the night off work, lined up a babysitter, thrown down the money to secure the good seats. You have waited a couple months for this night and the performance about to go on. You are amped up. The curtain pulls back and the stage explodes. The first lyrics penetrate the stadium.

But wait...that's not Bono? Huh...well he sounds good, maybe even better. After all, this guy has something to prove. But you were expecting the man behind the seminal rock band U2. The genius, the icon, the celebrity.

Disappointed? Of course you are.

Is it the same when the chef is not in the kitchen the night you dine?

From my perspective the transition from hired hand to famous face really started happening in the 1990's with Wolfgang and Emeril Lagasse breaking onto the TV scene. Shortly thereafter the mass penetration of the TVFN and its new crop of stars (Bobby Flay, the various Iron chefs, and Mario Batali) into pop culture spawned a fan base that looked at all types of food media.

How and why have some chefs crossed the line from essentially servants, hardworking laborers of a craft, to people considered artists and famous TV personalities, anchoring multi-million dollar brands?

Food blogs became popular, ranging from the detailed photo-documentation of meals to gossipy items on chefs including where they were spotted eating on a given night and what actresses they were dating. Food memoirs, chef autobiographies, and back-of-the-house biographies became popular, most notably the good cop/bad cop team of Michael Ruhlman (who wrote the "...of a chef" series of books that romanticized the passion, vision, creativity, and honest hard work of being a chef) and Anthony Bourdain, who sensationalized the rock-star-out-of-control chef image and showed the restaurant industry's underbelly. Both sides proved to be very appealing to foodies, helping further establish the chefs' aura as both idealistic artists and reckless bad boys.

When I took my first chef position at Trio, in 2001, I was a boyish 26-year-old who had cooking chops from my time at the French Laundry but obviously no public notoriety. Henry Adiniya, the owner of Trio at the time, tried to get everyone interested in me, from the diners to the media. Good public relations (aka popularity), he knew, translated to people in the seats.

I was glad people had no interest in meeting the man behind the stove. I wasn't shy, but I had better things to do. Like cook. The occasional foodies would ask to meet me after their meal, inevitably entering the kitchen while I had a cutting board full of fish or meat. Hands dirty, I would reluctantly pull myself away to chat with them.

"You're one to watch--you'll be famous someday!" a few of them would say. I would smile and turn back to my board, make a slight shake of the head while contemplating life as a famous fish butcher, and it was back to filleting. I still shake my head at the idea of being "famous." To me that means big, like really big, A-list actors, world leaders, celebrated artists. I just cook.

How and why have some chefs crossed the line from essentially servants, hardworking laborers of a craft, to people considered artists and famous TV personalities, anchoring multi-million dollar brands? And if they are lucky enough to have found an avenue to this elusive place in American society, what is now personally expected of them?

In a previous post I alluded to the fact that some guests were incredibly disappointed when they did not receive the mat plate while dining at Alinea. I ended by mentioning that as we got better at producing more and more on a given night to give everyone the same opportunity, an element of envy came into play when the presentation was not performed by me personally.

Even if that were all I did all night long, it would simply be impossible for me to plate every matted course in an evening. At times four to five tables will be served the course simultaneously throughout the four dining rooms in the restaurant.

So there are times when our chef de cuisine Dave Beran presents the matted course. Sometimes he plays the role of understudy for the entire evening while I tend to the other important aspects required to make the business successful.

If done well, this is the best of both worlds for everyone involved. The highly motivated chef de cuisine gets to feel the power and excitement of leading a kitchen, and in some cases will execute at a higher level than the chef for that very reason. Skill aside, determination can overrule experience and even ownership. This energy can provide perfection, spontaneity, and creativity not otherwise achieved by the chef.

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.
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