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."