It began in the late sixties just about the time brand-new New York Magazine set off its first chatter. The lion of Lyons, Paul Bocuse, determined not to die on his feet in his Michelin three-star kitchen without seeing the world, gathered a band of rebellious toques, and the adventurers hit the jet stream. The world seemed amused by their shenanigans, their bass en croûte, and their raspberry sorbet. Our vulnerable town, always primed to keel over for anything French, was already confronting the first intimations of nouvelle cuisine, soon to unleash oceans of beurre blanc, vegetables lashed together with scallion, and calligraphy written in raspberry coulis on the plate. Even if you hadn't grown up on overcooked lamb chops and macaroni and cheese, how could you keep your socks on?
The star chef's new eminence as matinee idol, entrepreneur, and auteur of pithy sound bites gave instant glamour and resonance to a discounted profession. Suddenly, Americans, fresh from small-town high schools or packing a law degree or retired but still lively enough to bake a mean apricot tart, moved into the kitchen. The two-paycheck economy turned us into an eat-out town.
Everyone we knew opened a restaurant (or backed one). Immigrants who couldn't get a job launched cantinas and noodle shops. The new American chef wannabes scrambled for respect in the kitchens of our town's fabled French chefs and skinned tomatoes for legendary Italian restaurateurs.
Thousands of restaurants were birthed, flourished, were revised, floundered . . . thousands of restaurants died. Now, more than 30 years later, one may hear the stuffiest Francophile concede that New York is the best city in the world for eating out. Platoons of raw recruits emerge from America's myriad professional academies, gung ho for fame and loot and residuals. The more ambitious will finagle or fight for a spot in Daniel Boulud's kitchen or under Eric Ripert's eye, even make the rounds of great kitchens abroad, enduring the isolation and militaristic discipline for the mark on a résumé, but also to learn. Who could have predicted it would lead to celebrity chefs' posing naked in ads with their electric blenders? Or modeling Rockport soft-soles, as Rocco DiSpirito has committed to do.
Mario Batali mastered the home cooking he tweaked for Babbo in homey Italian mom-and-pop eateries. Is Batali a great chef? If chef means chief, that's Batali. He's a star, a force, an impassioned translator, a matinee idol (framed in garlic, in shorts and ponytail, on the cover of Gourmet), even if he's not a skilled technician and at times his kitchen stumbles. As one of his French admirers observes: "On a line with Jean-Georges, Daniel, Eric, and Bouley, he would be the commis. But Babbo is great." And with partner Joe Bastianich, he transports us, at Esca and Lupa, to Rome, Sicily, Trieste, only better.
At some point, Lupa's chef de cuisine, Mark Ladner, made the place his, Batali says, just as David Pasternack seems to own Esca (right down to the misspelled Italian on the menu). Could Pasternack take his Long Island fishing sources and decamp? Could Ladner go solo? That's why the Bastianich-Batali duo keeps opening places, says Mario, hoping their team won't stray. That's why he's planning something Spanish soon to engage Babbo's chef de cuisine, Andrew Nusser.
Not all skilled and inspired chefs can be stars the way the game is played today. Some are too shy, too stiff, too insecure. Some quite accomplished cooks are offended by the fame drill, the need to kowtow to the press, to smooch cheeks, to be coached in media manners, to hit the road and sell that book. Some -- especially pastry chefs -- prefer anonymity in a far corner of the kitchen. Many go home at 10 p.m., having chosen family over fans, hanging out with their peers, and celebrity cook-offs.
Nor will every supremely gifted chef leverage the cachet of being No. 2 in a four-star kitchen into an entrepreneurial gamble. You need a stomach for risk. Daniel Boulud's award-winning alter ego, Alex Lee, seems to like the well-paying rut he's in. Boulud is often away promoting a book, ladling one of his sublime soups on the charity circuit, hopping on a private jet to show his face at a million-dollar wedding. He needs consistency at Daniel. He needs Alex Lee running the line. They read each other with ESP. "After all, I only have a daughter," says Daniel. "Someone has to inherit the business."