They slice. They dice. They make cappuccino of forest mushrooms, black tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta, and atomized shrimp cocktail.
They have restaurants from New York to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and imitators from Oshkosh to Auckland. Their cookbooks line the shelves at Barnes & Noble . Web sites and food magazines trumpet their recipes. With a flick of the television remote, they’re in your living room just about any time of day. Up-and-coming chefs beat paths to their kitchens to soak up their innovations and management styles. Consumers can’t get enough of their branded provisions or guest appearances on the culinary expo circuit. Oh, yes, they also manage to spend some time in front of the stove.
This fall, Forbes.com undertook the difficult task of identifying ten of the most influential chefs this year in the United States. They are the extraordinarily inventive individuals who have not only tasted success in the $476 billion U.S. restaurant industry (according to the National Restaurant Association), but whose insights, accomplishments and boundless creativity shape what we eat, how we eat it, and how much we’re willing to fork over for the experience.
With the cult of cuisine turning many affluent Americans into “foodies,” chefs have an outsized influence on their industry–not to mention on the dining public. “Food has come so much into our culture that people are listening to chefs in ways they never have before,” notes Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.
That’s why some of the names on our list will be familiar–even to those who have never sampled their fare. Thomas Keller of Per Se in Manhattan and of French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., is known for his complex and widely copied cuisine–which earned French Laundry raves as “the most exciting place to eat in the United States” from The New York Times–as well as his encouragement of younger talent. Mario Batali has myriad New York hot spots and a huge presence on the Food Network; Alain Ducasse, the first chef in more than half a century to grab triple Michelin stars at separate restaurants, is an internationalist with sought-after tables from Beirut to Tokyo to New York.
Other names will be less recognizable, such as Spanish New Waver José Andrés of Jaleo and Café Atlantico in Washington, D.C.; Lidia Bastianich of numerous cookbooks, public television’s Lidia’s Family Table and influential Italian outposts in the heartland and New York; and former pastry chef Suzanne Goin. Goin’s emphasis on all that is local, organic and wild at her Los Angeles eatery, Lucques, and her reinvigoration of the wine-bar concept at A.O.C. have brought new luster to Mediterranean-influenced California cuisine. Then there’s Wylie Dufresne, whose daring and scientifically enhanced concoctions at wd-50 in New York–such as shrimp noodles with smoked yogurt–have made him a lightning rod for culinary controversy and a hero to many gourmets–if not to his investors.
To select ten current tastemakers from the thousands who make their living in front of a stove, we interviewed restaurant industry insiders and opinionated observers, tracked media exposure over the past year– including awards, restaurants, name-branded merchandise and other recent projects–polled readers and tossed in a dash of our own dining expertise.
Like a tablecloth after a boozy banquet, the past is spotted with culinary artisans who have pushed the restaurant industry and consumer eating habits in one direction or another. For this list, we focused on people who are changing tastes today. So, as much as we may love Alice Waters and Alfred Portale, and as dramatically as they affected the way we eat, you wont see their names on this list.
We also estimated how much each chef has raked in for his or her work over the past year–sums that ranged from the surprisingly paltry to the stunningly large. Executive chefs make between $125,000 and $250,000 annually if they are hired by an owner. But they may be bringing in far less if, like Grant Achatz in Chicago, they have just opened a restaurant and are facing huge initial operating expenses. Many chef-owners don’t take a salary until their eateries are successful and are forced to live very frugally–even if they are celebrated for their cuisine.
Of course, chefs can earn much more when they have stakes in multiple successful eateries, are getting paid for product lines and are acting as celebrity representatives.
We limited our list to chefs who are operating in the U.S., which is why luminaries, such as Ferran Adria, whose experimental cuisine at El Bulli in Spain has altered modern cuisine and turned the tiny town of Cala Montjoi into a foodie Mecca, sadly did not make the list. He’ll just have to follow his influence over the ocean.
- Ten chefs who are Tastemakers