When Does a Chef Stop Being a Chef?


Photo by Dave Pullig/Flickr CC

Grub Street published a list late yesterday afternoon that raises lots of interesting questions: the 20 Biggest Chef Empires.

Gordon Ramsay's 25 restaurants, five television shows, 17 cookbooks, and 10 miscellaneous projects put him at the top, with Alain Ducasse and Wolfgang Puck numbers two and three, respectively.

The list's methodology is sure to raise some eyebrows--a chef's television shows count for more than his cookbooks--but perhaps the most controversial element of the list is its title: 20 Biggest Chef Empires.

"You forgot Colonel Sanders," said one commenter--implying, presumably, that the men and woman (yes, there's just one female, Lidia Bastianich) on the list aren't chefs at all, but titans of industry churning out soulless products instead of inspired food.

Can a person who owns more than 20 restaurants really be called a chef, or is he primarily a businessman? Grub Street points out that if Nobu Matsuhisa opens another Nobu in the United States, New York City will consider the restaurant a chain and thus require it to post calorie counts on the menus.

And many of the chefs on the list have self-promotional side projects that are only tenuously related to haute cuisine--Todd English's partnership with online dating service Lava Life or David Burke's role as a consultant to a Hooters-like restaurant chain. Do these projects undermine their credibility as respected chefs?

Chef Grant Achatz addressed many of these issues in a post on this site and came to the conclusion that moving beyond the kitchen is essential to a chef's personal and creative growth:

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.

Thoughts? Does a chef belong in the kitchen, and does he become something else once he expands his "empire" elsewhere? Or are television shows, cookbooks, and more a beneficial part of a chef's creative development?

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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