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.”
Andrew Carmellini – nominated unanimously as one of the best toques around – doesn’t seem to burn with an itch to leave Café Boulud, even though his food must have a Daniel signature. Jean-François Bruel says he’s happy at DB Bistro Moderne. “Daniel gives me freedom. I work on the menu with him. I can do what I want with the specials. With Daniel, it’s more like a family.”
Though he’s flung his empire wide, Jean-Georges Vongerichten almost always shows up when I lunch at his Nougatine, as if by hologram. And he does give his team room to create. At times, in fact, a minion takes too much leeway, and Jean-Georges may be too splintered to notice. But talent-in-embryo does find him. Sampling two tasting menus conceived by a duo of cooks Jean-Georges is betting on, a friend and I swooned and gasped as foodniks do when aroused. Oh, the Japanese red snapper with champagne-grape gêlée. Ooooh, the gorgeous steamed sable with crispy corn spaetzle in lemongrass consommé, all by Gregory Brainin, Vongerichten’s nod to run his Perry Street venture.
One of my colleagues suggested we celebrate only chefs who actually cook, or at least can be found in their kitchens. Slim chance. The chef as vanishing species is an insult to us (Alain Ducasse dares us to find him anywhere and insists it shouldn’t matter). But Ducasse has stuffed his Essex House kitchen with talent, and if I had a sugar daddy to take me, I’d be humble and wallow in luxe, knowing full well he wouldn’t be seasoning my soup even if he were there. But New Yorkers do like a chef to pay his dues and maybe work the room. We celebrate the consistent joy of lusty flavors and perfect cooking at Gotham Bar and Grill. It’s impossible to tell when Portale’s not there, though mostly he is.
My last meal at Town (unrecognized and with Geoffrey Zakarian tending a party upstairs) was remarkable. Is that a credit for ex–chef de cuisine Cedric Tovar, a veteran of Robuchon in Paris who says he banished the anarchy he found in Town’s kitchen? Or shall we salute his replacement, John Johnson, who has been doing Zakarian’s complexly layered food since ‘44’ at the Royalton? “I expedite and I cook,” Johnson says. “And we both taste everything every day.” Zakarian thinks a chef should eat on the town three times a week to stay current. But Town can be off. A near-perfect meal doesn’t erase memories of inedible squab a month earlier.
Alas, the golden era of Chinese cooking has tarnished. The great master chefs of the seventies have vanished. As soon as a fledgling enterprise in Chinatown gets a rave and the clientele turns less Chinese, the kitchen loses respect and waiters turn churlish. Chuen Ping Hui, distracted by his Elmhurst spot and shopping for midtown space, ignores Ping’s Seafood on Mott Street, though his wife Nancy promises the Hong Kong hotshot will reform. And I bet he will, at least for a while, if he finds that uptown perch.
Shun Lee’s dominance has everything to do with owner Michael Tong’s drive and smarts, much less with the anonymous journeymen tending his woks, though chef Zhang Huan Fu has a rare skill carving frolicking pandas from turnips.
It also doesn’t seem to matter who’s slicing at Jewel Bako, as owner Jack Lamb concedes, flashing his fat seafood encyclopedia with a drawing of a belt fish, source of our sashimi: “Grace and I do exactly what we want to do. We decide the menu. Set the standards. It’s about quality sushi, a luxury sushi experience. The touches we curate in the art of the table. I’m demanding.”
There will always be highly personal chef-and-owner-run cocoons, like Jewel Bako, like Gotham, like the monastic Sushi Yasuda with its exemplary sashimi and Nippon with its owner-grown soba. And we’ve not yet sung of our crush on Frencher-than-Paris Balthazar or why we jockey for a catbird seat at the Four Seasons Grill Room and what a lark it is dribbling grease on ourselves at Rao’s. I could go on and on: our addiction to the Cobb salad at Red Eye Grill and Vincent Scotto’s grilled pizzas (better than Naples) at Gonzo and Celeste’s Neapolitan pizzas (better than Naples, too) and the fried green tomatoes at Maroon’s. And the superlative Sicilian frozen cassata and gelati whipped up by Gino Cammarata at Bussola. This is Gourmandville, USA.
If the cash registers still ring in Orlando for Bocuse, how can we expect our own great chefs to resist temptation? Though at the very top, each superchef graciously nods to the others’ supremacy, each also wants to be crowned emperor, the best of them all. And happily for us, the top whisks mostly pursue the spoils determined to keep their mother ship aglow. A network of seasoned and dedicated seconds, chefs de cuisine and sous-chefs full of ideas, keep the kitchen afloat. And if kitchen doors weren’t so thick, you would hear the whips cracking whenever Superchef touches down.
You and I are breaking bread in a moment of staggering culinary invention. At the same time, the complexity of what New Yorkers are offered to eat is unmatched. The soupy buns. The house-cured cuts of apple-fed pigs and homemade lardo. The just-smashed guacamole. The truffled macaroni. It’s easy to imagine what it must have felt like to be an artist or a collector in Renaissance Florence. Now let us eat.