Job Objective: The Top of the Heap.
Until the Food Network made cooking a media event, most people entering the business in the US had visions of being on the front page of Saveur as the chef of their own five star restaurant in wine country. Only a handful including Thomas Keller, Richard Redinger, Doug Keane, Cyndy Paulson and Dan Barber achieved it. More chefs, but still a tiny percentage of those who have graduated from culinary schools or worked their way up through the ranks, have made their mark in the urban food centers of the country. Of these, America’s recognized restaurateur chef stars, a disproportionate number are not home grown, Europe providing the lion’s share – Puck, Andres, Bouloud, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Michel Richard.
The reason for this probably lies in the rigor of the European apprenticeship, which is equaled by the standards of chefs like Dan Barber, Gary Danko, Thomas Keller and Doug Keane. Of the best recognized Americans who have moved onto Restaurant Olympus a number worked for a long time in restaurants like Stone Barn Inn and the French Laundry.
If you do the numbers on how many people aspired to Olympian fame and how many actually achieved it, you will see the odds are poor. More people win the lottery. With culinary schools churning out thousands of graduates quarterly and more working their way through the ranks, you can still count the number of those who actually count as “top chefs” on two hands plus maybe a few toes. Why? It demand more than most of us can or are willing to give.
Regardless of their origins, all of the “top chefs “share the common traits required to reach the summit: A long training period in a demanding environment, a golden palate, enormous to freakish talent, an unstoppably creative mind, unbending focus and a related wealth of knowledge and skill developed over years and years, love of the game and ability to prioritize career and work over everything else (also known as “passion”), self-discipline which kept them at the same tough position for years, and if married, a partner who not only understood and sacrificed for their goals and vision, but was able to assist them through business vision and acumen. They don’t share some of these traits. They share all of them.
They also got lucky at some point and had the common sense to recognize the opportunity. Years ago my predecessor placed one of the chefs named above at the Carnelian Room, an extremely well paying fine dining union house on the 42nd floor of the Bank of America in San Francisco. Today that would seem a career death sentence, but at that point it was the hottest ticket in town. The chef called the morning he was to begin to tell her he had been made an offer for a small restaurant he could not refuse. She and Aramark, which ran the restaurant were furious. History, however, proved him right.
There are a lot more people with some or all of the attributes shared by these chefs. Some now own excellent restaurants in good places, but most never got near their dream. I’d say that despite not being on the front page of Esquire or Food Arts or having a show, all of them with the diligence and focus and skill to make them capable of being on the great chef short list have been successful in other branches of the food world. The dirty secret is that most of them are happy and probably happier for it.
If you want the summit, decide if you can make the sacrifices and have the qualities to achieve it. Listen to Jim Croce’s “Working at the Car Wash Blues” as you make your decision. You can’t just want it. Ambition is not sufficient. You have to be it and do it. You get to be someone famous and important by being nobody for a very long time.
If you do have “what it takes,” by all means strive for it. No guts, no glory. But it takes long, hard work, and the glory is generally long in coming. Shooting for the moon will get you somewhere, as long as your ship is tight and you have enough fuel. Without what it takes, your chances are grim. If you don’t have all of the components required to reach the top, put your efforts towards realistic goals, which can include a really good restaurant of your own. Life is too short to be living someone else’s dream.
The rewards at the top, financial and personal, of course, are enormous, and if you get tired of the heights, you can hop off. Paul Bertoli, once celebrated chef of Chez Panisse then owner of the equally prestigious Olivetto stepped back to expand on a family salumi business, Fra Mani. Michael Chiarello, once synonymous with Napa Valley, stepped back from his partnership in renowned Travigna to produce a well received series of condiments, Napa Style, had a food show, then missed the kitchen so much he reopened Bottega in the Valley. Joyce Goldstein stepped away from the celebrated Square one to become one of the country’s best respected restaurant consultants.
If you do pursue the dream of the top, you have to put all your eggs in one basket. There is no way to hedge your bets and no Plan B. That’s why it probably isn’t the appropriate route for most people. Being a great chef should suffice, and if you work on that, you will have options. A discussion of some of them will come soon. There are nearly limitless alternatives which will leave you more of your youth and your life and possibly even your family and not make you unhappy when you arrive.