But chimps will never dream about linguini and clams. That is to say: Truly great chefs need more than knife skills and talent.
After graduating from Rutgers in 1982, Mario Batali began a new course of studies at Le Cordon Bleu in London--only to withdraw almost immediately. In Batali's own words, he was a culinary upstart who "felt kinda important" because he had been working on the side for the acclaimed chef Marco Pierre White (a notoriously unforgiving boss who chucked a pan of hot risotto that he deemed substandard into the chest of an unsuspecting young Batali). Three decades later, speaking to Corby Kummer at The Atlantic Food Summit (he wrote about his interviews with Martha Stewart and Batali here), Batali called himself "foolish," "young," "impatient" for failing to finish culinary school, and he offered some advice: "I would recommend that whatever you do, whatever you start, you should finish it." But some would say that Batali--now an award-winning restaurateur and television personality whose Italian cuisine is almost as famous as his penchant for Crocs and shorts--has done rather well for himself, despite what he sees as the impetuous decisions of his youth.
If Batali made one thing clear on Thursday, it's that there is no clear, predictable path toward celebrity chef-dom. The concept itself is a relatively new phenomenon. "Keep in mind that in 1975, when you became a cook, it was because you were between two things: you were between getting out of the military and ... going to jail," Batali said. "Anybody could be a cook, just like anybody could mow the lawn." But then came a cultural shift toward the restaurant as the setting of an anticipated evening out, where the food is enjoyed for more than its nutritional utility and chefs are artists to be revered. Batali, of course, was lucky enough to be swept up in this wave. But he aired the concern that many culinary schools make the mistake of convincing students that they can touch the ceiling within months of graduation--that they can have their own show on the Food Network, or snag that executive chef position. "We don't even hire sous chefs. We hire linemen," Batali said of his own restaurants. "No one is ever hired to be the boss."
The proliferation of competition shows on the Food Network has had a sort of democratizing effect (Cupcake Wars routinely invites owners of small, little-known bakeries, and Chopped once convened a group of cafeteria cooks for an episode), making television seem more accessible than ever, a quick way to draw eyes to your food. But Batali--one of the Food Network's early recruits in the 1990s--said that he believes talented young chefs can gain traction without television exposure: "You don't need TV," he said. Certainly, television can help chefs to meet new customers and to "espouse your personality and the ideology of your restaurant"--to build a brand, essentially--but the medium alone does not ensure a successful career in food. "All the people who lose in the first three or four rounds of all of these sadistic shows don't go home to a crowded restaurant," he said. "TV isn't necessarily the guarantee." For Batali, however, his knowledge of Italian cuisine "propelled him a little forward because people saw me as someone who truly understood this stuff" (on Molto Mario, Batali was a congenial conversationalist, whipping up platters of pasta as he held court with three guests). Batali, whose career undeniably benefited from his television experience, had only one real complaint about his participation on competition shows: the "skinny little actresses from a show called The O.C." who were invited--instead of the chef-judges he respects--to critique "something I spent an hour humping to get done."
Batali said that he strives for consistency, to make it possible for customers to enjoy their favorite dish again years down the line--but it's an ambition made precarious when most other chefs are using "jello and some seaweed extract," or trying to incorporate a "test tube to squirt you with something." Above all things--creativity, technique, encyclopedic knowledge--the quality essential to being a chef, the "fundamental, most important building block," is generosity. "You have to be generous if you want to spend your time making someone else dinner," he said. "Even if you're charging, you're still giving."
Most people can pick up the basic techniques of working in a kitchen, but the more abstract elements of passion, service, and engagement are not as easy to learn: "I can teach a chimp how to make linguini and clams. I can't teach a chimp to dream about it and think about how great it is," Batali said. "Although the skills aren't hard to learn, finding the happiness and finding the satisfaction and finding fulfillment in continuously serving somebody else something good to eat, is what makes a really good restaurant."