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Excerpt: Super Chef

The ability to recall a taste sensation, which I think of as "taste memory," is a God-given talent, akin to perfect pitch, which makes your life richer if you possess it. If you aren't born with it, you can never seem to acquire it....And naturally good chefs and cooks must depend upon memory when they season or when they are combining subtle flavors to create a new sauce or dish.

-- James Beard, Delights and Prejudices (1964)

How does one become a Super Chef? First, James Beard advised, one needs "taste memory." Such memory starts in childhood. Wolfgang Puck's mother was a pastry chef. Charlie Palmer learned to cook in high school. Todd English claims his Italian grandmother inspired him. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger both credit their mothers for sparking their appreciation. Tom Colicchio grew up in a Neapolitan family in New Jersey who treated meals as an integral part of family ritual and even had an uncle who sold fresh vegetables.

Some chefs study formally at organized schools; others pass on school and simply work. Tom Colicchio never "studied" -- other than read, re-read, and then read again Jacques Pé pin's La Technique while he apprenticed. Wolfgang Puck won an Austrian national culinary championship after only three years of gastronomical studies at the technical school in Villach, where he started at the age of 14. Todd English graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at the top end of his class. Charlie Palmer and Susan Feniger are also CIA graduates; Mary Sue Milliken graduated from Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago.

Schooling only helps prepare for placement; apprenticeship is the most important part not only of learning but also of becoming recognized and of advancing. With the Austrian national prize in his pocket, Wolfgang Puck worked for six years in France before becoming an executive chef in Indianapolis, and he worked in a undistinguished downtown Los Angeles restaurant before getting his big break from Patrick Terrail at Ma Maison. Fresh from the CIA, Charlie Palmer landed a full-time job at La Cô te Basque but also took on unpaid work off-hours at La Petite Marmite and La Chantilly before he got his break at the River Café . Both Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger worked at Le Perroquet in Chicago after they finished school, and both apprenticed in France (L'Olympe and L'Oasis, separately) before launching their partnership at City Café .

When a cook has proven him- or herself at every station in the kitchen, knows each step of preparation for every dish on the menu, and can produce every dish perfectly and repeatedly, that cook can become a sous chef ("under chef") and eventually a chef. A chef who shows talent for the creation of new sauces and dishes -- a signature -- has become a great chef. Typically, such great chefs work for others (a restaurateur or another chef) and then open their own restaurant. Opening up a restaurant is no light matter. Describing their move from the eleven-table City Café to their own 5,000-square-foot City Restaurant in Los Angeles in 1984, Mary Sue Milliken confessed:

We didn't know much about business at all, and that's one of the real stumbling blocks for chefs. You know, you're really focused on Food, you're really, really passionate --

-- and then there's never a good time, added Susan Feniger, and no one really likes it that much --

-- for learning about business and all the things that go hand-in-hand with business: how to run it, the ups and downs, how to imagine the future, how to control costs, how to increase sales, none of that.

Managing not one but many restaurants in more than one geographic location is just where becoming a Super Chef first becomes a distant glimmer. To take that quantum leap, a chef must show aptitude for other professions, such as restaurateur and entrepreneur, financier, realtor, and media star. Some of it can be learned -- but when and how, when a rising chef has already spent most of his or her adult life so far just learning to become a chef? Culinary schools have only recently begun to teach some of these other skills.

People who made the leap between 1980 and 2000 from owning their first restaurant to forming an empire have been extraordinary leaders indeed. They are phenomena, and this change in cookery has been nothing less than phenomenonal. The question is, will Super Chefs last?
Consider four earlier French chefs whose careers had deep impacts on these Super Chef phenomena: Antonin Carê me, Auguste Escoffier, André Soltner, and Ferdinand Point.

Though haute cuisine (high cooking as opposed to cuisine bourgeoise or home cooking) is recognized as having begun under Franç ois Pierre de la Varenne (1615-1678), as Anne Willan described in Great Cooks and Their Recipes, it was less than two centuries ago that the father of haute cuisine, Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Carê me (1784-1833), wrote his crucial five-volume L'art de la cuisine franç aise au dix-neuviè me siè cle. Among his many achievements, Carê me codified the French sauces handed down from La Varenne: espagnole, vé louté , allemande, and bé chamel. Of equal importance, however, he was one of the last master chefs in private service, and his employers included France's preeminent diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Russia's Czar Alexander I, England's King George IV, and France's Baron James de Rothschild.

Georges-Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) is generally recognized as "the chef of kings and the king of chefs." Among his many accomplishments, he institutionalized service à la russe, organized restaurant menus and restaurant kitchens, and recorded recipes for chefs. Escoffier sent out over 2,000 chefs he had trained to promote French food and French products around the world. His personal concern for the welfare of his colleagues raised the status of cooking as a profession. He worked for Cé sar Ritz, "the king of hoteliers and hotelier of kings," who created the Savoy and Carleton hotels in London and the Ritz in Paris, the jewels of a hotel empire.

Escoffier was one of the first chefs to gain celebrity on the order of that enjoyed by actors or politicians of his day, though he did not own an interest in the Ritz Development Company, whose kitchen brigades he organized. He dabbled with his own product lines of Spé cialité s Escoffier, but he remained a chef always and was never interested in developing businesses himself; he sold out his shares in Spé cialité s Escoffier within a decade. Under Escoffier and Ritz, great chefs became famous for their work in public restaurants: Escoffier mapped out the restaurant industry for the twentieth century.

André Soltner (born 1932) was the chef of Lutè ce in New York from 1961 and owner from 1972. He sold it in 1994, just as Super Chefs were coming into their own. For over three decades, Lutè ce was considered the single best restaurant in America and Soltner the most celebrated chef. In 1968, he became the first French chef outside France to win the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest French recognition for chefs. Honors in just the past decade include the French Chevalier de la Lé gion d'Honneur and the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He still teaches at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Soltner had no empire but he did have Lutè ce, "the repository of the gracious ways of our inherited past," as Seymour Britchky wrote in The Lutè ce Cookbook.

Just as Soltner carried Escoffier's torch to new heights as the most famous chef-restaurateur in America, back in France the apprentices of Ferdinand Point (1897-1955) were challenging the rigidity surrounding Escoffier's haute cuisine recipes with their own nouvelle cuisine. Point's apprentices, such as Paul Bocuse, became internationally famous: in the 1970s, Bocuse started an empire from Disney's Epcot Center to restaurants in Tokyo and Melbourne. Still, none of those French chefs ever penetrated deeply into that singularly large and lucrative market called America, and so their empires never reached the size of their later, American-based colleagues.

Nevertheless, nouvelle cuisine and its rebel chefs shook an America already convulsed by a health food craze. Their cookbooks abounded. Their chefs toured America. American culinary schools started teaching nouvelle cuisine, so that at the CIA in the late 1970s Charlie Palmer studied classical, Escoffier-influenced recipes and less than five years later Todd English was immersed in an American take on nouvelle cuisine.
These rebels of nouvelle cuisine opened the door for the rise of American regional cuisine, just as the media in America were becoming widely food conscious. While Bocuse and contemporaries (Louis Outhier, Roger Vergé , Paul Haeberlin, Michel Gué rard, Henri Chapel, Pierre Troisgros, and Alain Senderens) trained and inspired the coming generation in America that would include Super Chefs, the American public was coming to appreciate fine food. Newspapers led by the New York Times began running special restaurant, dining, and food sections, and journalists who specialized in food became famous themselves: Pierre Franey, Craig Claiborne, R. W. Apple, Jr., and most recently Ruth Reichl to name journalists at The New York Times alone.

Television rode right behind print. By the second of her four-decade reign, Julia Child had become a household name, famous enough to inspire a Dan Akroyd impersonation on Saturday Night Live in 1978. Child spawned a troop of like-minded chef educators for decades, including Jacques Pé pin and Martin Yan, as well as early entertainers, such as the Galloping Gourmet. It was their enduring success on PBS channels that opened the door for the Food Network with Emeril Lagasse and Sara Moulton, not to forget Martha Stewart. Unlike the Super Chefs, however, Child herself never owned a restaurant, nor have many of the Food Network stars owned either restaurants or restaurant empires. However, Child championed chefs with professional organizations like the James Beard Foundation (whose award is the culinary equivalent of an Oscar), the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), and the International Association of Cooking Professionals (IACP).

Lastly, major technology changes enabled chefs to expand their empires: transportation, communications, refrigeration, packaging, and education. In the world of food, the "global village" had two levels of impact. On the first, the ingredients of regional cuisines became physically accessible most everywhere. On the second, and in contrast, a chef no longer needed to be present physically in any specific restaurant thanks to mobile telephony and the Internet.

Another essential ingredient that made Super Chefs possible was money. The American economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s meant not only that capital was available for such risky ventures as fine dining restaurants but also that more and more people had income to dispose upon the delights of expensive restaurants. In fact, customers were often attracted to investing in their own "trophy" restaurants. As Phil Colicchio explained of his decision to invest in his cousin Tom's restaurants, "Is it fun and cool to bring your friends and clients to your restaurant, that happens to be the best new restaurant in the country? It's way cool!"

From this combination of ingredients and intertwined experiences, the phenomenon of Super Chefs arose.
A number of ingredients go into making Super Chefs. Their businesses reach geographically outside one city and beyond restaurants into other businesses. They are celebrated for their cooking talents and bedazzling, media-savvy ways. They manage large businesses, building brand names and personal wealth unheard of before among chefs. Their business empires are enduring.

Why were these six chefs profiled and not others? Drawing a single model of the successful Super Chef is not possible, but the adventures of these six Super Chefs captured important variations. Their careers offered some of the best stories, tales of success, disaster, and rebuilding, of contrasting culinary styles and business styles, of geographies and backgrounds.

Wolfgang Puck is the wealthiest Super Chef, and as the longest survivor he has simply done the most. Charlie Palmer has become an investor in restaurant real estate, in other chefs' restaurants, in a host of supply companies, and in hotels. Todd English, while trying to rival Puck, is finding himself breaking new ground in non-food and non-kitchen products. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, more than just representing a rising percentage of women chefs, have wrestled most honestly with the issue of staying true to their art. Tom Colicchio represents rising Super Chefs as they play catch-up by accelerating through the expansion cycle.

"Raw talent is not enough," Mary Sue Milliken said. "The biggest ingredient for a chef to be successful is to wear all the hats at a certain level. You don't have to be a great CFO, but you have to be a great leader. You have to be a leader to your CFO. You have to be a leader to your cooks in the kitchen. And actually a lot of great chefs are not great leaders. They are so creative, but they alienate people. They can only grow to a certain point because people think they are assholes."

Most chefs who reach Super Chef level are well liked, hardworking, and irrepressibly optimistic people who have grown emotionally and intellectually as their companies have faltered and flourished. Though they all started in a profession that is largely manual, they are intellectually impressive and innately driven. Their adventures also help answer important questions: how are Super Chefs affecting the food, restaurant, and other newly encompassed industries, and how are they shaping the careers of future chefs?

Copyright 2004 by Juliette Rossant