Today the world is swimming in celebrity chefs. Take one look at the Wikipedia entry List of chefs, which divvies up famous chefs throughout history and, in sheer numbers, there are ten times as many modern chefs (ie those active in the 20th and 21st centuries) as those in all previous periods combined. Mind you, the same sort of ratio would be the case with social media influencers, so perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it.
Chefs probably take up a position in the pecking order of celebrity behind heads of state (and their families) and actors and musicians, but that would be about it.
But they are also inspirational – inspiring some to become professional chefs themselves and inspiring mere mortals to experiment a little in the kitchen and try out new foods and new techniques.
We could simply trot out the names of the current batch of celebrity chefs, but instead we thought we’d take a tour of some of the chefs – both modern day and from the past – that have had a huge influence on how we cook today.
This list is – of course – highly subjective and we’re sure we’ve missed out many worthy inclusions*, and we’re sure you’ll let us know if you think we have erred. And if you’re a big gourmand (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gourmand) you’ll probably know them all anyway!
So here, in vaguely chronological order, are the first seven…
Mithaecus was a Sicilian who lived in the late 5th century BC. He moved to Athens at the height of the Greek empire and showed the ancient Greeks how to cook properly. Plato wasn’t a big fan and neither were the Spartans, who apparently kicked him out for being ‘a bad influence’, so he clearly started the trend. He wrote the first known Greek cookbook and caused a bit of a ruckus by suggesting using cheese with fish.
2) Guillaume Tirel
Fast forward about two thousand years to fourteenth century France where we meet Guillaume Tirel, chef to the French royal court during the Hundred Years War. His nickname was Taillevent which loosely means ‘idle swaggerer’, so again clearly a controversial figure. He was an early fan of Burgundy wine and also wrote a cookbook (or perhaps simply updated an existing book) called Le Viandier, which is regarded by food historians as the foundation of French cuisine.
3) Marthe Distel
Not technically a chef, but a journalist (although we’re sure she did some cooking), Marthe Distel set up the magazine La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu in the 1890s, which offered subscribers cooking lessons with professional chefs. The cooking lessons became much better known than the magazine, with Cordon Bleu cooking schools now regarded as the pinnacle of culinary education. The magazine actually continued until the 1960s. As far as we’re aware no relation to French crooner Sacha Distel.
4) Raymond Blanc
Raymond Blanc is an exception in the world of French cuisine in that he is entirely self taught. This isn’t quite right as he attributes his cooking ability to helping his mother in the kitchen and learning everything from her. Turning up in England with no real grasp of the English language after being fired from a Michelin starred restaurant in France (for telling the head chef how to cook), he started out as the chef in a pub in Oxfordshire, later setting up his own restaurant in Summertown (a suburb of Oxford) called Les Quat’ Saisons. He later moved this out to a manor in the countryside, appropriately called Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and the rest is history. He can be credited with introducing true French patisserie to the UK and a French menu slightly fresher than what had been on offer in somewhat stuffy French restaurants up until that time. Many current celebrity chefs have worked for Mr Blanc on their way up, including Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White.
5) Paul Bocuse
If you’ve come across Nouvelle Cuisine, you have Paul Bocuse to thank. It had its detractors too… the food could taste amazing, but it often occupied nine square centimetres in the middle of a huge (normally bright white) plate and so wasn’t exactly filling – quality over quantity. Although it generally looked amazing. His restaurant near Lyons – L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges – maintained a 55 year continuous 3 Michelin star rating. He is also known for setting up the international Bocuse d’Or chef competition – the Olympics of the chef world, for French inspired cuisine anyway. Paul Bocuse died in 2018 at the age of 91.
6) Caesar Cardini
Caesar Cardini is on this list for one reason only really – he invented the Caesar Salad. After moving to the New World from his native Italy, he worked in Mexico and then California, ultimately moving to LA, serving the aforementioned Caesar Salad at his restaurant in Hollywood, where it was popular among the stars. Quite where he invented it is not known, although a restaurant he originally set up in Tijuana in Mexico (and called Caesar’s Restaurant) claims to serve the ‘original Caesar Salad.
7) Julia Child
Julia Child was arguably the very first TV chef. In 1961, along with two co-authors, in 1963 she published the 726 page cookbook ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Initially rejected as being too big, it went on to become a bestseller. After working for the OSS – the predecessor to the CIA – during World War 2 (where she invented shark repellant) she married Paul Cushing Child, who was also with the OSS and they moved to Paris. It was there she found her inspiration eating at a restaurant in Rouen. She took a cooking course at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris (see above) and set up an informal cooking school of her own with her two co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Her first TV show – called ‘The French Chef’ – aired in 1963 and was an instant hit. As it was unedited TV (the only kind at the time), her occasional mistakes went to air and only increased her popularity. She almost singlehandedly introduced French cuisine to the American public. The 2009 film Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep is a story about a New York woman cooking all the recipes in both volumes of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’.
Look out for Part II soon. And feel free to tell us who we’ve missed!