When a Chef Gets Famous

All these activities pull the chef away from the kitchen and therefore the food, but ideally make the restaurant, the brand, and hopefully the overall guest experience better. The diners gain access, the business is financially rewarded, and the employees benefit from freedom and resources not typical in an average restaurant.

The fact is, the very thing that positions chefs in the class of fame--the grinding out of the daily work in the kitchen while striving for perfection, the monotonous and sometimes menial tasks, and the relentless dedication to the expression of creativity and originality in food--ultimately lands them on magazine covers, in newspaper features, and on TV. Which in turn can catapult the chef into a life far different from the typical hundred hours a week in a hot kitchen.

This creates a direct conflict. Does the success of the chef and restaurant lead to the demise in the quality of the product? Is it a double-edged sword? Most people think that for a great chef--the "passionate visionary artist" the media proclaims--to compete at the highest level, the work has to come directly from the chef's hands, or at least close to them. When people pay to eat the food equivalent of Nude Woman with a Necklace , they want the real deal. A Picasso is a Picasso because he painted it. But cooking is not like music, television, or painting, where art can be immortalized: you cook the masterpiece, it's consumed, and the next day you do it all over again.

Does it have to come from the hands of the master? Or is coming from the mind of the master through the hands of his disciples enough?

What most people don't realize is that this conflict handcuffs the chef. Not having the freedom to venture away from the stove and pursue other interests, personal or professional, is a creative ceiling: the obligation of the kitchen is always present. Naturally, as you grow as a chef and ideally gain more popularity, different opportunities are presented to you.

Cooking at a high level is a young man's game: the time commitment, as well as the mental and physical sacrifices, make working at that extreme unsustainable. But more importantly to the chef as a person is personal growth. Naturally curious and creative, we are always looking for different ways to apply ourselves in other creative media.

I have been fortunate to fulfill a few outside interests recently like writing--this blog, cookbooks, a memoir, traveling, and even collaborating on various TV and film-related projects. These avenues of creativity not only make my life richer and more rewarding personally but also inform and inspire my cooking.

So in the end does it matter if the chef is not in the house? Purely from the standpoint of food execution...likely not. Assuming, that is, that he or she has a well-trained and passionate staff being led by a tight chef de cuisine, the occasional absence is not detrimental to the experience.

But are we even talking about the food? Isn't this about the impact of presence? What if I sat in my office all night long, every meal cooked for every diner without my touching one component of one dish, and then walked through the rooms and chatted with guests at the end of their meal? Would they leave the restaurant having had a better experience than if I'd been too busy cooking to make a single appearance?


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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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