Forgive me, I actu­al­ly have to read my text. So, celebri­ty chefs. There’ve always been celebri­ty chefs whose skill and cre­ativ­i­ty made them famous. But the pas­sage of time usu­al­ly means we know lit­tle more about them than their names. From ancient Greece and Rome there’s only one cook­book that sur­vives in full, that attrib­uted to the Roman cook Apicius, which dates actu­al­ly from the end of the Roman Empire.

I’m going to talk about the Western world, but I should point out that there were famous chefs in many places and peri­ods, notably in the spec­tac­u­lar gas­tro­nom­ic cul­tures of the Islamic Caliphate of Baghdad; the Ottoman Empire; and Tang, Song, and Ming China. 

But to begin with the Greeks. A chef named Miticus of Syracuse is men­tioned by Plato. And accord­ing to the Sophist Maximus of Tyre, Miticus was as great in the art of cook­ery as Phidias in sculp­ture. And since Phidias was the most famous sculp­tor of the ancient world, this is high praise indeed. Yet we have only one recipe attrib­uted to Miticus, that we know of, and I’ll read it to you because it’s real­ly short.

How to make rib­bon fish

  1. Cut off the head of a rib­bon fish.
  2. Wash and cut in slices.
  3. Pour cheese and oil over it, and cook.

So this is a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing. We’re told by Athenaeus, the most accom­plished gour­mand of the clas­si­cal world, that a cer­tain Glaucus of Locri invent­ed an excel­lent sauce called hysophag­ma. But we have no oth­er infor­ma­tion about this guy. Athenaeus says that the sauce was made with fried blood, hon­ey, milk, cheese, herbs, and sil­phi­um. Silphium was a sharp and sour-tasting plant that grew in North Africa, a favorite condi­ment of the ancient world. And I put this in the past tense because it became extinct. It was so sought after. Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero pub­licly con­sumed the last sil­phi­um ever foraged.

The first renowned chef in the Western world whose life we know some­thing about is Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent, who lived from about 1310 to 1395. He was chef to two kings of France, and he qual­i­fies as an undoubt­ed celebri­ty. King Charles V bestowed on him a knight­hood and a coat of arms, here depict­ed from his brass tomb cov­er. And on this tomb, Taillevent is dressed as a knight. In armor and a sword, flanked by his first and sec­ond wife. Not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly; one died. Notice the dog at his feet and at the feet of the wife on his left.

You can see that his coat of arms con­sists of two groups of three ros­es top and bot­tom, with three stew pots along the cen­ter of the field. As sym­bols of chival­ry, the pots may seem to imply con­tempt or amuse­ment, but they remind the view­er that the chef was hon­ored for his craft. At any rate, Taillevent, who designed his own tomb­stone, was quite pleased with this heraldic device.

Taillevent was part author of a medieval cook­book known as The Viandier, which con­sist­ed of recipes from before Taillevent was born but to which he seems to have added. The old­est ver­sion of The Viandier is this 15th-century parch­ment scroll in the Cantonal Library of the Valais in Sion, Switzerland. And there were over 150 cook­book man­u­scripts from the 13th through 15th cen­tu­ry, many of them still unedited.

Nothing is fur­ther from real­i­ty than the Hollywood image of crude medieval din­ing in films such as Becket… Well, any num­ber of films, where haunch­es of roast­ed meat are torn apart with­out regard for man­ners or cer­e­mo­ny. In fact, medieval cui­sine was com­pli­cat­ed, piquant, sub­tle, and served accord­ing to very elab­o­rate rules. So for exam­ple, there are sev­er­al medieval hand­books of carving—just of carv­ing instructions—one of which from England in the 15th cen­tu­ry is so finicky that it match­es par­tic­u­lar verbs to each cut-up fish or ani­mal. So you unbrace a mal­lard, but you tranche a stur­geon. You dis­mem­ber a heron, but you tame a crab. And if you make a mis­take in this ter­mi­nol­o­gy you’ve shown your igno­rance. All author­i­ties agree, by the way, that crab is the hard­est. According to an expe­ri­enced house­hold man­ag­er named John Russell writ­ing in the 16th cen­tu­ry, crab is a slut to carve.”

Medieval chefs loved trompe l’oeil. Meatballs glazed with pars­ley sauce to look like green apples, or cooked ani­mals that appear to be alive, as with this pheas­ant made accord­ing to a recipe of Taillevent in which the feath­ers and skin are care­ful­ly sewn back on to the roast­ed bird.

They also had a pon­der­ous sense of humor. Here is anoth­er dish of Taillevent’s called coq hel­met (hel­met­ed roost­er) in which the roost­er is mount­ed on a glazed suck­ling pig. 

Illustration of a man wearing and apron and holding a sword pointed at his own body

The renowned chefs of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras were in the employ of great noble­man or princes. And they put on amaz­ing ban­quets. And we have very few records of them wor­ry­ing about any sort of finan­cial bot­tom line. That does­n’t mean they [were] free of stress. François Vatel com­mit­ted sui­cide when the fish failed to arrive at Chantilly for a ban­quet cel­e­brat­ing a vis­it from King Louis XIV. But actu­al­ly, he was not a chef as much as a house­hold offi­cial in the Prince du Condé. He had some oth­er prob­lems as well. But his fate has become a leg­end emblem­at­ic of the pres­sures under which chefs oper­ate. And you all know, I think, the trag­ic sui­cide of Bernard Loiseau in 2003, caused sup­pos­ed­ly by his appre­hen­sion that the Guide Michelin would take away his three star ranking.

Painting of a cardinal and cook standing before a large stove, the cardinal holding a copper saucepan and the chef with a doubtful expression having just tasted something from it

Chefs of this era also had to put up with annoy­ing inter­ven­tions from their employ­ers. This paint­ing in the Albright Knox gallery in Buffalo, New York is enti­tled The Marvelous Sauce,” by a painter named Jehan George Vibert. And it shows a car­di­nal instruct­ing his dubi­ous and harassed-looking chef in how to make a sauce.

All of these irri­ta­tions notwith­stand­ing, there was a lot of fun and excite­ment. Just ran­dom exam­ple of many pos­si­bil­i­ties, a rather mod­est din­ner served in 1524, dur­ing Lent, to twenty-four guests at the court of the Duke of Ferrara in Italy includ­ed three cours­es, each with forty five dish­es. Thirty of them, the first two cours­es, were made with stur­geon. The head cooked in white sauce with pome­gran­ate seeds. Sturgeon meat­balls in sauce, served on bread. Sturgeon slices in pis­ta­chio sauce. Sturgeon pies. Sturgeon with cher­ries and dates. Caviar. Sturgeon pas­ta fried with oranges. Sturgeon tripe on bread, and so forth. The author of this meal, a chef named Giovanni Battista Rossetti, was great­ly admired in his time.

Perhaps the most sig­nif­i­cant divide in the his­to­ry of chefs and their fame is before and after the inven­tion of the restau­rant. Until the late 18th cen­tu­ry, when restau­rants were first estab­lished in Paris, great chefs cooked for eccle­si­as­ti­cal, aris­to­crat­ic, or prince­ly employ­ers. The lead­ing chef of the 19th cen­tu­ry here, Marie Antonin Carême, fol­lowed this old­er career mode. He ran the kitchens of the Prince Talleyrand, the Prince Regent of England, the Baron de Rothschild, and was offered a job by the Russians czar, which he refused. Carême was cer­tain­ly a celebri­ty chef. But he was also the last to spend his entire career in the employ of pri­vate indi­vid­u­als. He was famous because of his defin­i­tive pub­lished recipes, but few peo­ple had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sam­ple his cooking.

Contrast with the expe­ri­ences of anoth­er author­i­ta­tive French chef, Auguste Escoffier, whose career clos­es the 19th, and opens the 20th cen­tu­ry. Escoffier col­lab­o­rat­ed with César Ritz, man­ag­er of the Savoy in London and the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And then after Ritz had a ner­vous cri­sis, Escoffier returned to London as the chef at the Carlton Hotel. 

On one occa­sion, Escoffier pre­pared a din­ner for Kaiser Wilhelm II fea­tur­ing his cre­ation, veal Orloff. The German ruler told the chef that while he, Wilhelm II, was emper­or of Germany, Escoffier was the emper­or of chefs.” Escoffier cooked a mag­nif­i­cent one-off meal for the Kaiser, but his reg­u­lar job was for an immense afflu­ent pub­lic. Restaurants have allowed chefs to have a large audience.

An inven­tion of the 18th cen­tu­ry, the restau­rant was dis­tinct from a tav­ern, chop house, inn, or take-out estab­lish­ment. All of these have always exist­ed. The restau­rant was new because it was a des­ti­na­tion, not a con­ve­nience. Rather than eat­ing at a crowd­ed board, what­ev­er the land­lord set out, you could arrive at a range of pos­si­ble times, sit at a sep­a­rate table with your friends, and order from an exten­sive selec­tion of dish­es. Restaurant chefs were no longer depen­dent on the whims of wealthy patrons.

This does not mean, how­ev­er, that grand cui­sine as a spec­ta­cle was over. Nineteenth cen­tu­ry restau­rants offer dish­es as splen­did as those of the Middle Ages, requir­ing days to pre­pare, immense cook­ing skill and dec­o­ra­tive abil­i­ty, such as this game purée on the top and the par­tridge char­treuse on the bottom.

The nature of the meal ser­vice and the look of the table set­ting changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The old, so-called French, form of ser­vice placed the entire first course on the table before the guests entered the din­ing room. This pro­vid­ed a daz­zling spec­ta­cle of food on mag­nif­i­cent serv­ing dish­es, arranged in col­or­ful pat­terns and shapes. There were only two or three cours­es for French ser­vice, but each one might con­sist of dozens of dish­es. No sin­gle din­er could try every­thing, but the meal was con­vivial in the sense that you depend­ed on neigh­bors to pass things to you, or on foot­men stand­ing behind you.

In 1805, the first celebri­ty restau­rant crit­ic, Grimod de La Reynière, ridiculed as exces­sive the din­ners typ­i­cal of the era before the French Revolution, where six­ty guests might be served over 120 dish­es just for the first course. And for six­ty din­ers he advo­cat­ed a fru­gal thirty-five dish­es mere­ly, for each of three cours­es. A mod­est 115 in total. Who were these peo­ple? How could they dine like this? I don’t have a good answer for this.

The French ser­vice was per­fect­ed in the set­ting of a palace, while the Russian ser­vice came into favor with the advent of the restau­rant. Russian ser­vice grad­u­al­ly took over between 1830 and 1880. And here there were few­er dish­es per course, but many cours­es. This is what we are famil­iar with. It meant the table was more dec­o­rat­ed because the pro­fu­sion of food did not itself pro­vide the required grand effect. Flowers, epergnes, wine glass­es, charg­ers, plates, fish forks. The weighty look of the Victorian era replaced the small plates and min­i­mal table décor of the French ser­vice, where the food itself pro­vid­ed the beau­ty. Modernist restau­rants have tend­ed to dis­pense with the starched table­cloths and mul­ti­ple wine glass­es look. But now the pre­sen­ta­tion of the food has become once more high­ly stylized. 

From the point of view of the chef, both sys­tems had advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. The French ser­vice meant there was no way for the food to be pip­ing hot, obvi­at­ing that prob­lem. A huge num­ber of dish­es were pre­pared, but there were only a few cours­es. In the kitchen, the Russian ser­vice meant a con­stant stream of orders, bring­ing dish­es back and forth, and it required lots of wait­ers and pre­ci­sion timing.

The Russian meal ser­vice is also either long or rushed. Charles Ranhofer, chef at Delmonico’s in New York from 1862 until 1892, said he expect­ed a fourteen-course din­ner to take two hours and twen­ty min­utes. Ten min­utes per course. But he was quite hap­py upon request to accel­er­ate the speed to about eight min­utes per course so the repast might con­clude in under two hours. And my orig­i­nal inten­tion was that this would evoke gasps of aston­ish­ment, but since Noma is able to do this, maybe not.

Now, his­tor­i­cal­ly most restau­rant chefs were men, while the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of domes­tic cook­ing was per­formed by women. This is a unique pro­file in which pro­fes­sion­al and home prac­ti­tion­ers have been divid­ed by sex. Some excep­tion­al women did man­age to become renowned chefs. The so-called Mère Lyonnaise made the food Lyon famous and cre­at­ed a self-perpetuating gas­tro­nom­ic culture.

In New Orleans, Madame Elizabeth Kettering Begue was the most cel­e­brat­ed chef at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Of German ori­gin, she mas­tered the Creole cook­ing of New Orleans. Her restau­ran­t’s main meal ser­vice was at eleven o’clock, a ver­sion of the German insti­tu­tion known as the sec­ond break­fast, here intend­ed for the con­ve­nience of butch­ers when they fin­ished their busi­ness in the neigh­bor­ing meat mar­ket. Discovered by tourists around 1890, these bohemi­an break­fasts, as they were called, became wild­ly pop­u­lar and con­sti­tute prob­a­bly the first form of brunch, a par­tic­u­lar American pas­sion. Liver with bacon and onions was Madame Begue’s most famous dish. Again, maybe a lit­tle disappointing.

Restaurants have allowed chefs to be cre­ative and to become cel­e­brat­ed, not just for mas­tery of clas­sic dish­es such as char­treuse of par­tridge, but as inven­tors of new things. So, Ranhofer’s lob­ster à la Newberg at Delmonico’s; Escoffier’s pêche Melba, named after the great opera singer; or Jules Alciatore’s oys­ters Rockefeller at Antoine’s in New Orleans. 

Of course there are dis­ad­van­tages to restau­rants. The pub­lic is inclined to be unpre­dictable, fick­le, eas­i­ly bored, herd-like, and not always appre­cia­tive of qual­i­ty. And I say this of course as a non-chef and mem­ber of that public.

Restaurants in the 19th and 20th cen­turies renowned for their food have not always had famous chefs. Our col­league Alain Senderens is an excep­tion, but most great Parisian restau­rants such as Taillevent or the Tour d’Argent were known for their pro­pri­etors and front of the house man­agers. Restaurants in the French provinces were more like­ly to be run by chef own­ers such as Fernand Point of the leg­endary La Pyramide in Vienne, or François Bies of the Auberge du Père Bise at Talloires.

The rise of mod­ern celebri­ty chefs means a change in the bal­ance between the restau­rant as a stage set by its man­agers, where the chef is lit­er­al­ly in the back­ground, and the chef-driven restau­rants. The wan­ing of France’s tra­di­tion­al dom­i­nance over what is defined as grande cui­sine is a key fac­tor in build­ing a new kind of fame. As long as French cui­sine was the inter­na­tion­al stan­dard, the best chefs were con­sid­ered mas­ter crafts­man prac­tic­ing a received skill, a body of knowl­edge that could be traced back to what Taillevent or the chefs at Versailles learned and lat­er taught. The end of unques­tioned French pow­er to define gas­tron­o­my for the entire world is per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant event in the mod­ern his­to­ry of restau­rants and cui­sine. And I say this not as some­thing that I think is a great idea but just as some­thing that has happened.

In 1969, the restau­rant guide authors Henri Gault and Christian Millau were asked by the American mag­a­zine Holiday what is the great­est restau­rant in the world. And they con­temp­tu­ous­ly dis­missed most of the globe, includ­ing Italy. Gault said of Italy, I don’t have a sin­gle excit­ing mem­o­ry except for the scampi at Harry’s Bar in Venice.” For Spain, ordi­nary and heavy food.” For Denmark, they agreed that lit­tle chil­dren like Danish food a lot. As for the United States, the best restau­rants there were French any­way, so why both­er? Mulling over about twen­ty eli­gi­ble restau­rants in France Gault and Millau came up with a tie for first place between the restau­rant of Paul Bocuse and that of Jean and Pierre Troisgros. This Holiday inter­view was a last man­i­fes­ta­tion of the serene assump­tion of the supe­ri­or­i­ty of French gas­tron­o­my before la nou­velle cui­sine of the 1970s start­ed break­ing it apart. As it hap­pens, Gault and Millau both named and cham­pi­oned nou­velle cuisine. 

Gault and Millau were pre­scient in this arti­cle in one obser­va­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly, it seems to me. The dif­fer­ence between the Troisgros broth­ers who in 1969 they said were work­ing for the sake of art with­in an estab­lished tra­di­tion, and Bocuse who they said was work­ing for glo­ry. And his food was lighter, more play­ful and cre­ative. Partridge char­treuse, to be sure, but Bocuse used juice from the pressed par­tridges rather than the meat of the bird.

Restaurant cui­sine and the out­look of chefs would tend to fol­low the Bocuse exam­ple in the next decades, and in fact the Troisgros them­selves took this path as well rather than serv­ing as cus­to­di­ans of an unchang­ing her­itage. This is not to say that chefs sud­den­ly dis­cov­ered inno­va­tion where­as before they had mere­ly fol­lowed prece­dent. Grand mas­ters of the past like Scappi, La Varenne, Carême, and Escoffier, made earth­shak­ing changes in cui­sine. But they replaced one author­i­ta­tive sys­tem with anoth­er. What has hap­pened since the 1970s, accel­er­at­ing since the 1990s, I would say, is the frag­men­ta­tion of author­i­ty. The absence of any agreed-upon code, whether an old one or a new one. 

Chefs still influ­ence each oth­er, of course. Especially with regard to tech­nique. But less in the cre­ation and def­i­n­i­tion of canon­i­cal dish­es. What we are see­ing in the 21st cen­tu­ry is fideli­ty not to tra­di­tion but to ingre­di­ents. This is appro­pri­ate to a food world under­mined by indus­tri­al pro­cess­ing, agri­cul­tur­al unsus­tain­abil­i­ty, mass mar­ket food, and eco­log­i­cal damage. 

So Alice Waters, just as an exam­ple. Leading chefs in recent years have tend­ed to see them­selves as advo­cates for a ter­roir, but they have expand­ed the def­i­n­i­tion of basic ingre­di­ents found in that local­i­ty to include wild plants or previously-ignored vari­eties— I can’t remem­ber how many kinds of horse­rad­ish René says grow in Denmark, but it’s over a hundred.

Chefs have encour­aged the restora­tion of for­got­ten breeds, of agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts and live­stock. A chef is not a con­tem­po­rary artist, exact­ly, who can sim­ply do away with tra­di­tion­al tech­niques and train­ing. But the way is open, it seems to me as an out­side observ­er, for more cre­ativ­i­ty than in the past, and that gives chefs more oppor­tu­ni­ties to achieve artis­tic and cre­ative sta­tus. Yet as Alex Atala has said, cre­ativ­i­ty isn’t doing some­thing that nobody has ever done before. It’s doing the same thing that every­body does, but doing it bet­ter. And ide­al­ly there should be a har­mo­ny between his­to­ry and innovation. 

I hope it’s not just banal to con­clude my time with you by say­ing that achiev­ing a cre­ative vision as a chef comes from actu­al cook­ing, and only sec­on­dar­i­ly from shap­ing a per­son­al­i­ty or tak­ing posi­tions on pol­i­tics and sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Our theme, What is Cooking?” rep­re­sents more than a call to return to the stove, but I think a reju­ve­nat­ed sense of our sur­round­ings and our his­to­ry. Thanks so much. 

Further Reference

Overview page for the MAD 4 / What is Cooking? event.