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Kitchen Legacies: Exploring the Unique Chef/Mentor Relationship in Restaurant Kitchens

JBF Editors

JBF Editors

April 25, 2010


There is a saying in the food world: A chef is only as good as the cooks that come out of his or her kitchen.

The profession of cooking has always been based on an apprenticeship system. Even today, when a degree from a culinary program is often a prerequisite for kitchen work, new cooks still learn from more experienced cooks once they are on the job. Occasionally, in the heat of this environment, a relationship will form that goes beyond a simple transfer of skills. When an established chef takes a particular interest in another cook’s career—an interest based on mutual respect—both the chef and the cook grow. Once out in the world, whether in the kitchens of other chefs or in their own restaurants, these young cooks become a chef’s legacy.

This year, for the 20th anniversary of the James Beard Awards, we chose to celebrate these legacies by asking all of the previous Outstanding Chef Award winners to select a chef whom they mentored to cook at our gala reception. By shining a spotlight on the unique nature of these culinary relationships, we hoped to show how integral the sharing and transfer of knowledge is to a cuisine, especially one as dynamic and evolving as that which we enjoy in America.

Charlie Trotter, who wrote an introductory essay in this year’s Awards program, spoke to the deep and important role culinary mentors play. According to Trotter, his mentors “taught me that there is no limit to learning and developing skills. They were always there to listen to me, they corrected me, and they challenged me every step of the way. Their knowledge and wisdom inspired me every day.”

Culinary Symbiosis
The chef/mentor relationship takes on many forms. Behind every great chef there is often another equally great, though lesser known, chef—the one that spends his or her time in the restaurant kitchen ensuring that every dish exceeds diners’ expectations.

At Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia, Fortunato Nicotra has filled this role for more than a decade, making him the natural choice for her Awards pick. She described Nicotra as “an immensely talented chef who knows the real pulse of Italian cuisine.” She went on to say, “Felidia is my home—the kitchen its heart—and to me, there is
simply no one better suited than Fortunato to continue its legacy.”

Nancy Silverton shares a similar relationship with her Awards choice, Dahlia Narvaez. “Over the ten years that I’ve worked with Dahlia, she has become an extension of my creativity, my hands, and my palate,” explained the JBF Award–winning pastry chef. “I can trust her—both to carry out my vision and to make desserts that I may not have thought of but that once I try, I wish I had.”

Moving On

In their picks for the Awards Reception, other chefs chose to highlight the careers of chefs who’d once worked for them but have since moved on to their own restaurant kitchens.

“Like most chefs, Chris DiMinno is demanding and passionate. But he’s also curious, humble, and wise—not to mention ridiculously talented,” said Dan Barber about his selection of the chef at Portland, Oregon’s Clyde Common to cook at the Awards. “My choice was at once impartial (there’s no one more deserving) and incredibly selfish (I just miss his cooking).”

Thomas Keller, whose pick was former Per Se chef de cuisine Jonathan Benno, stressed the importance of the next generation of American chefs, noting that Benno’s “current and future contributions will be impactful—not only to the New York culinary scene but to our industry as a whole.”

Knowledge and Respect

And just what did these younger chefs learn from their mentors? For many it was something as simple yet elemental as a respect for ingredients and where they come from. DiMinno, who worked under Barber at Blue Hill Stone Barns, is grateful to the 2009 JBF Award winner for teaching him to “listen” to the food.

“Always let the ingredient tell you how to treat it,” DiMinno explained, “and do as much or as little to maintain its character and to produce the most natural and intense flavor experience.”

Marc Forgione, chef and partner of Restaurant Marc Forgione in NYC, began his culinary career in the kitchen of his father Larry Forgione’s iconic eatery An American Place. One of the greatest lessons he’s taken away from his years of working with the JBF Award winner? “Search out the best you can get from your purveyors, and continue to taste and push for the best—it’s out there.”  

Just as important as the quality of the ingredients is how you choose to work with them, and many of our 2010 JBF Awards Gala chefs cited the help they’d received refining their approach and their palate. Finding the elusive balance between simplicity and complexity is something that all chefs strive for.

A Top Chef contestant and the chef de cuisine at Philadelphia’s 10 Arts by Eric Ripert, Jennifer Carroll acknowledged that struggle, and she credits Ripert with “teaching me restraint without compromising the complexity of flavors.”

Other chefs echoed the importance of knowing when to step back. “Alice taught me the art of restraint in cooking,” explained Michael Tusk, one of the many chefs who has cooked with and learned from Alice Waters and her colleagues at Chez Panisse.

Now, as the chef and owner of his own restaurant, San Francisco’s popular Quince, Tusk has become a mentor to the young chefs who pass through his kitchen, instilling the knowledge he gained under chefs like Waters and ensuring that her legacy will continue, while creating one of his own.

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