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.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.