What is it about great chefs that excites and interests us? A part of the answer has to be their culinary prowess, the command with which they manipulate food, their virtuosity in a kitchen. But this can’t be the whole reason we find them so compelling. There are many, many extremely gifted home cooks and professional chefs that don’t attain the fame or name recognition of the Mario Batalis, the Gordon Ramseys, the Marcus Samuelssons, the Alice Waters, the Julia Childs, etc. So, how have these people carved out a space for themselves in the upper echelons of the culinary world? There must be something beyond cooking ability that propels great chefs to the culinary Olympus in which they find themselves.
I think that part of what separates great chefs from their contemporaries is the way that they use their culinary skills outside of the restaurant kitchen. Which chefs use cooking as the tool through which they accomplish farther-reaching goals, beyond pleasing guests around a restaurant table? José Andrés sums up this imperative nicely.
“Yes, we cook for the few in our restaurants, but we have the power and knowledge to cook for and feed the many.” — José Andrés 
The greatest chefs have a purpose that transcends their talents as a chef and gives their lives meaning outside of the kitchen. The beauty and creativity of their food and personal brand might be what leads to their recognition as culinary artists, but it is their lives outside of the kitchen that make them great, not only as chefs, but as icons, citizens, and individuals. Nation Swell recently put out a list of 10 chefs who are revolutionizing the American food scene. Every chef on this list has a cause for which they work and support. Many take the form of non-profit organizations. Giving back to communities across America, they showcase their personal talents, and what’s more they bring people together around cooking and food. (For a full list of Nation Swells “10 Chef’s Who Are Bringing a Food Revolution to America” click here.)
Finally, there is the constant and pervasive question of whether or not the great chefs make culinary history, or history, culinary or otherwise create an environment in which chefs can be perceived as great. This is really a matter of Luck and Timing. An example of this lucky timing that comes to mind is Alice Waters, and her restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters is largely recognized as one of the forbearers of the Organic Movement in food. Chez Panisse opened in 1971, just 9 years after Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson was published. In the nine years following the publication of the environmental science opus, many people began to think more consciously of their food, specifically of the use of pesticides. Did Silent Spring lay the groundwork for an organic/local movement in food? If Alice Waters tried to open her restaurant nine years earlier, would it have had the same success? Whatever the answer may be, it is important to remember that it is not Alice Waters’ cooking alone that brought her into the culinary limelight; it is the fervor and commitment with which she attached herself to an issue (organic farming) and pursued that issue to the extent of her capabilities. Her work outside of the kitchen augmented and validated her work within. This, in my opinion is what makes a great chef great. Seeing an opportunity to pursue public-spirited change, and using the art of cooking as the tool by which you affect that change. A socially conscious mind brings the chef’s talents into the limelight. The community-centric mindset is what makes the greatest chefs great.
We hope you have enjoyed our first installment of Mise En Place. We welcome your feedback and comments – it is through our conversation that we can better enjoy the meal at the table! Feel free to send me your comments directly at Zachary@popup-revolution.com or comment publicly to further continue the discussion.
We welcome all suggestions for topics to cover, as well — send recommendations to Zachary@popup-revolution.com.
In good food,