10 Most Influential Chefs Part 2.

This is a ranking of the chefs I feel have had the greatest influence on the American culinary scene.  When the idea of ranking the 10 most influential chefs originally came to me the first thing I had to do was set out a criteria for my ranking.  Here’s what I asked myself:

  • Have they influenced younger chefs?
  • Have they had an influence on the American table?
  • Have they influenced the US dining scene?
  • Have they influenced home cooks?
  • Have they influenced me?

As with any of these types of lists debate will rage.  I invite, nay!  I implore you to use the comments section to offer your own critiques and substitutions.  Let’s start with a review of Chefs 10 – 6:

10. Michael Symon
9. James Beard
8. Graham Kerr
7. Bobby Flay
6. Emeril Legasse

If you are interested in reading my justifications or reasons for ranking who I did, where I did then read Part 1 HERE.  Now let’s proceed with the top 5:

Julia Child5. Julia Child (author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a dozen more cookbooks and host of The French Chef and numerous other TV series).  Ah Julia.  You can find people who dislike Emeril and Bobby and Graham and even those who hate on Jacques Pepin, but everyone loves Julia.  Thankfully those who did not grow up watching her cooking on TV got a chance to know her in last year’s hit film Julie & Julia.  Julia left us in 2004 but her influence on the way home cooks cook is apparent even today.  Sure Beard was first and Kerr the most famous but Julia transcends time.  She taught Americans that not only is it good to dream big but also to fail big.  She made great food accessible to the everyday person and removed the bourgeoisie tethers from French cuisine.  She returned it to the commoner.  I am lucky enough to own a first edition copy of Julia’s second book, the companion to her hit series, The French Chef. It was a gift from one of my own chef groupies and it is the star of my cookbook collection.  I do not cook from it, I cherish it.  Just as we all cherished Chef Julia Child.

Thomas Keller4. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry and ad hoc in Yountville, California, Bouchon in Yountville, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, Bouchon Bakery in Las Vegas, Yountville and New York City, Per Se in New York City).  Do you know why you have heard of Yountville, California?  Because of Thomas Keller.  Before Keller opened his first eatery, The French Laundry, Yountville was just another spot on the map.  Now it is the heart of the Napa Vally wine country.  Many have proclaimed Chef Thomas Keller the best chef in the world.  Of course there is no way to quantify such an accolade.  The kicker for me of Keller’s genius was on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s short-lived Food Network series, A Cook’s Tour where Bourdain and some friends were treated to a Keller tasting menu at The French Laundry and midway through the six hour eat-a-thon Keller had made a course specifically for the chain-smoking Bourdain – a Marlboro Red infused custard.  According to Anthony, “this is like driving a Rolls Royce naked in mink underpants.”  You can watch the entire French Laundry Experience HERE.

Daniel Boulud3. Daniel Boulud (Daniel, Bar Boulud, Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, DBGB Kitchen & Bar and Bar Pleiades in New York, DB Bistro Moderne in Miami, Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, DB Bistro Moderne and Lumiere in Vancouver, Bar Boulud in London and Maison Boulud in Beijing).  Boulud is very talented.  He has a devotion to wowing diners and has maintained that reputation for going on three decades.  His restaurants can be found all over the globe ( four countries on three continents) but with Daniel it’s all about disciples.  Boulud has mentored more big name chefs than anyone since Escoffier.  The list of names is ridiculous.  Boulud also starred as the host of a show about the truly extravagant side of dinner parties on the now-defunct HD network MOJO called After Hours with Daniel Boulud.  It was unequivocally the best food porn I have ever seen.  You can watch every episode for free at Hulu.com.  You can’t really call yourself a foodie if you don’t.

Ferran Adrià2. Ferran Adrià (El Bulli restaurant in Roses on the Costa Brava, Spain).  You had to see this one coming.  I mean this guy is on everyone’s list and for good reason he created a cuisine.  Although Adrià balks at such talk and even declines to call what he does molecular gastronomy but that is a good description.  Adrià’s unique vision and creativity have produced the bulk of the world’s food trends for the past four or five years – foams, caviars and all manners of deceptive looking morsels.  He has made a small Catalonia village over looking the Atlantic ocean one of the must-see locals on earth.  They flock there for a meal at the current best restaurant on earth.  And they have a sense of urgency about it.  El Bulli is closing its doors in 2014 so that Chef Ferran can work on other projects.  It’s a shame really because if you don’t have reservations already then chances are you may never get to try it.   Chef Gordan Ramsay describes Adrià’s cooking as, “. . .  cooking 20 years ahead of its time.”  Adrià’s disciples are as numerous as his accolades and they spread from Barcelona to LA and beyond.  You could easily make the case for Adrià to be #1 and get few arguments, after all the guy did invent a whole new cuisine.  How do you top that?

With one spot left to go I’m sure people are already making a list of chefs they think belong on this list more than others.  You’d be hard pressed to find fault with any top 10 chef’s list that included the likes of David Chang, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Laurent Tourondel, Larry Forgione, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa or Alice Waters.  If fact if you asked me to do this again in six months chances are you’d find one or more of them on that list.  By mentioning that I have just given you a clue that none of them are my #1 most influential chef.  That goes to . . .

Wolfgang Puck1. Wolfgang Puck (Spago in LA, Chinois in Santa Monica, Postrio in LA and Las Vegas, CUT in LA and Las Vegas, Trattoria del Lupo and Springs Preserve Café in Las Vegas, Five-Sixty in Dallas, The Source in Washington DC, Wolfgang Puck B&G and WP24 in LA, Wolfgang Puck in Orlando, Wolfgang Puck Grille in Detroit, 20.21 in Minneapolis, countless cookbooks and official caterer for the Academy Awards Governor’s Ball).  Puck’s career has been ridiculous.  Many consider him the first rock star/chef because he was the first chef (sans TV) that people actually knew about.  He was the first chef to have people show up at his restaurant just to get a glimpse of him.  His gig catering the Governor’s Ball at the Oscars was the catalyst to it all and it is something he still does to this day.  He was really the first chef to build an empire of multiple restaurants.  Puck is responsible for introducing two cooking styles – Fusion and California Cuisine.  He has an impressive list of disciples.  He pioneered branding for chefs and has also done a number of hit TV shows.  Most importantly, if you ask many of the other great chefs discussed here they’ll tell you that their number one influence is Puck.  To any who have read much of my writing you may have noticed that I usually refer to him as “the incomparable  Wolfgang Puck.”  From where I sit that is the best way to describe him, incomparable.  Though numbers ten through two may change for me depending on the barometric pressure or what color socks I’m wearing Puck will always be #1.

Alright there’s my list.  Rip me apart in the comments if you like.  It’s all good.

El Bulli restaurant in Roses on the Costa Brava, Spain.

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4 Responses to 10 Most Influential Chefs Part 2.

  • Pretty good list, perhaps a bit heavy on contemporary chefs like Symon. I would have put Julia Child first. Others that possibly should have been on this list are, in no particular order:
    1. Prosper Montagne, who gave us Larousse Gastronomique. Is there any chef who doesn't have this tome? I have the 1961 English edition and don't want the updated version. This is the real deal.
    2. Craig Clairborne, food critic for the NY Times and author of The New York Times Cookbook, The New York Times International Cookbook, among many others. He is on the list from a home cook perspective.
    3. Irma S. Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931 and sill in print. How many generations, including mine, learned to cook first with this cookbook? I would say far more than any other cookbook. I have a paperback and my mother's 1946 edition.
    4. Jacques Pepin, who gave us Complete Techniques, the ultimate book for learning the foundations of cooking. He is also a chef and had a variety of TV shows, as well as written many other books. Every chef should have this book.

  • Those are some impressive names, Virgil but you forgot Escoffier. Pepin is a strong candidate for sure.

  • ChefGerard says:

    Ferran Adria is the most creative! I just love molecular gastronomy!!

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Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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