By Daniel A. Marano, Psychology Today Magazine
Premium Health News Service
5:30 AM EDT, June 12, 2013
For a generation or two, legions of ambitious youth who had something to say and wanted to make a mark on the world learned to play the guitar or drums and set off to become a musician or at least a rock star. Then independent films lured America's young. The tools of digital production captivated the minds and wallets of so many that film schools sprang up like mushrooms across America.
Now cooking is cool. From Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, chefs have become respected and highly visible, driven to become experts in and advocates for foods from the region they inhabit or the ethnicity they inherited. Having gained local fame--although Twitter assures us that nothing remains local for long--some bounce around the globe, immersing themselves in exotic new tastes and techniques that will undoubtedly flavor the menu of their next venture.
You can find them on television, displaying the tattoos and hair formerly associated only with hard-core punk bands. Where once a tall and improbable Julia Child, coauthor of the first breakthrough cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," could barely find a foothold on TV, there are now entire channels devoted to stove skills. And "celebrity chef" has become a tasteless phrase.
In less than two decades, cooking and the practice of being a chef have undergone radical transformation. Cooking is now as much science as art, no longer confined to the classic and highly codified French school (think: Georges Auguste Escoffier) that reigned for the entire 20th century.
In fact, culinary culture is moving out of the kitchen in two directions at once: into the farms and fields to source and sometimes grow flavor-intense ingredients and into the laboratory to understand how cooking transforms those ingredients. Instead of anonymously apprenticing for a decade in the kitchen of some Parisian tyrant, today's aspiring chefs crack open the books of food chemists Harold McGee and Chris Young and, marinated in basic cooking science, feel free to fire up their imaginations at the nearest stove. Hello, bacon ice cream.
Fueled by little more than a lust for flavor, today's chef might just have started out in investment banking or spent summers working on a farm before falling in love with some particular food or cuisine and pursuing that passion.
After a stint in finance, David Chang fell so hard for noodles a decade ago as a teacher in Japan that his minuscule Momofuku joint on New York's Lower East Side is now the no-reservations seat of a culinary empire, complete with a fermentation laboratory, stretching to Sydney, Australia.
With no formal training of any kind, having started as a dishwasher in Vermont at age 16, Andy Ricker traveled from kitchen to kitchen in notable establishments until he found inspiration in Thailand. In 2005, he opened his first Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Ore., to much critical acclaim, and, as Emeril Lagasse might exclaim, "Bam!" a Pok Pok popped up last year in a hipster corner of Brooklyn and was hailed as one of the most notable restaurant openings of the year with its reinvention of Thai cuisine.
Ricker now runs two restaurants in New York and four in Portland, Ore., one of which is a whiskey bar that features a drinking vinegar he developed and now sells as a health tonic and a base for cocktails.
Social media help heat things up fast, as word can now spread to the cogno-scenti long before the New York Times food critic arrives for a first bite. And many of the best chefs seem to be all over Twitter, tweeting finds and shout-outs to each other direct from their own kitchens.
The new rock-star aura of chefs is even spilling over to their suppliers: the ranchers raising clover-grazed beef and the farmers nurturing heirloom tomatoes at $3 apiece wholesale.
"That tomato is now a gem," says award-winning New Mexico chef Joseph Wrede. "It's at the center of my plate, and you can damn well bet that it deserves, and will get, all of the attention."
The rise of the chef marks a fundamental shift of power in restaurants, from the front of the house to the back. Think Hollywood, where the producers had all the power in the old studio system, and actors, even the most famous ones, were under contract to them, at their mercy. Today, actors hold the power, and a $100 million picture gets made, or not, because of the star attached to the project.
For nearly two decades before serving as chief food critic of The New York Times between 2009 and 2011, Sam Sifton was eating his way through New York and writing about it.
"When I was starting out, it was at the tail end of the period when the most important figure in the restaurant was the proprietor or the maÃ®tre d'. There are still restaurants where this is the case. In New York, Le Cirque's Sirio Maccioni is probably the best known. We had no idea who was in the kitchen and didn't care. Twenty years later, the most important figure in the restaurant is the chef." The chef is the brand. And because the media are aligned with our palates, chefs who walk now take their clientele with them wherever they go.
Jeremy Fox earned a sizable reputation and two Michelin stars for his vegetarian cooking at Ubuntu in Napa, Calif., a few years ago but recently left his latest venture, Barnyard, down the coast in Venice, before the place could open its doors.
His entire staff and the food blogosphere followed, as did customers, who could get a taste of his cooking in myriad pop-up restaurants and test kitchens around Los Angeles while Fox contemplated his next establishment. Both Silicon Valley and Wall Street keep minting millionaires eager to fund a star chef's global expansion, often including a showplace restaurant in Las Vegas.
While chefs are devoting more time and effort to procuring the finest produce--even growing their own ingredients, often in partnership with ranchers and farmers--culinary schools are beefing up their curricula to serve the new order. Because food is increasingly recognized as medically significant,
Johnson and Wales University (Providence, R.I.) in January instituted a new collaboration with Tulane University Medical School (New Orleans, La.). For the first time ever, medical students are attending culinary classes as part of their training, getting credit for the food-as-medicine courses.
"Eating is one of the most emotional things we do," says Karl Guggenmos, dean of culinary education at Johnson and Wales. "That will never change." But how we eat and how Americans relate to food are undergoing rapid change, for reasons related to sustainability as well as health.
Responding to the need for a more academic education for chefs, the Culinary Institute of America in February launched a new Culinary Science program leading to a bachelor's degree at its main campus in Hyde Park, New York. At the same time, the school has begun offering seniors a semester at its Northern California campus focusing on farm-to-table cooking.
Chefs get hands-on experience in developing menus from locally sourced ingredients as well as instruction in how to make farm-to-table a successful business model. For more than a decade, the CIA has been partnering with Harvard Medical School to bring together chefs and doctors at now-overbooked conferences highlighting new information about nutrition.
The CIA's culinary science program is promoting a new type of chef: the research-and-development chef, trained in flavor and nutrient evaluation and product innovation as well as in knife skills--and among the most highly paid.
It's all a long way from the traditional, structured, military-infused routine of working your way up through the stations of a kitchen. It's also a long way from Julia Child, who was really just trying to help Americans work with a limited selection of produce and figure out what the hell to do with all those frozen peas.
If an American chef has his hands on frozen peas today, they're likely the product of kitchen creativity--heirloom peas, newly picked, whipped into a cloud of foam fresh from an icy bath in liquid nitrogen. Such techniques of precision temperature cooking, including the now near-ubiquitous sous-vide (French for under vacuum), afford chefs new ways to develop the natural flavors of food.
Sous-vide, for example, allows foods to be cooked for long periods in water at low temperatures that maintain juiciness and an even degree of doneness. It's one reason why science is now a full partner in culinary education.
"We are in the middle of a revolution, really, moving from the master/apprentice model to a cooking culture with an expanding knowledge base that embraces scientific inquiry," says Mark Erickson, provost of the CIA.
The rise of the chef-businessman with eateries in Dubai and Hong Kong as well as New York, has prompted the top culinary schools to add courses in managing corporate entities.
"I talk to my lawyer these days as often as I talk to anyone in my organization," says Pok Pok's Ricker. "Ultimately, today's big-name chefs and restaurateurs are businessmen with obligations to investors, employees, and customers, not necessarily in that order."
Make that the chef-businesswoman. Nearly 50 percent of the student body at the CIA is now female. And like their male counterparts, women are staying for baccalaureate degrees with expanded management and liberal arts courses. Says a spokesman for the school: "Budding chefs are increasingly realizing that there is more to career success than just great cooking skills."
High on the Hog
With cultural cachet come cultural responsibilities. "No longer are we simple laborers chopping carrots in sweaty, dangerous kitchens," declares Rene Redzepi, chef of the world's number-one-rated restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, the culinary hot spot du jour.
In announcing the advent of annual symposia bringing together farmers, scholars, foragers, and chefs from around the world to encourage inquiry and creativity, he insists that chefs now have obligations that transcend their knife skills--like educating each other and the public about what is good to eat and why, and becoming socially engaged.
The annual forum, called the MAD Symposium (mad is Danish for food), begun in 2011 and held in Copenhagen, is "dedicated to the changing role of the chef." New York culinary star David Chang, who talked about natural flavoring, headlined the 2012 conclave, devoted to appetite, which Redzepi deems "the natural habitat" of the chef, because it "connects the outer world with our inner needs."
Still, says Pok Pok's Ricker, there's always a backdrop of commerce. "The good news is that the money flying around sometimes allows chefs to get on the soapbox for things they care deeply about."
(Daniel A. Marano is an information architect and food writer in Ann Arbor, Mich.)
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