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My list of the world’s most influential chefs

Who do you think are the world’s most influential chefs? It is a tough question to answer.

There is no shortage of ratings that tell you who the world’s great chefs are. Michelin and World’s 50 Best Restaurants rate restaurants rather than chefs, but the chefs at these restaurants end up getting most of the recognition anyway.


And while there are chef-specific awards like the Best Chef Awards, they tend to rate a chef’s performance over the year in question rather than overall influence.


   Besides, what is influence anyway? My definition is that to be regarded as truly influential, a chef must change the way in which other chefs cook or see themselves. And the chef must significantly impact the way we look at food.


   For the purposes of this list, which is in no particular order, I am only including chefs who are alive. It is too easy to do a list that honours Auguste Escoffier or Paul Bocuse. In real terms, this means that Joel Robuchon who might otherwise have made the list is excluded.


Michel Guerard: We can argue all day about whether French is truly the great cuisine but what is certainly true is that most chefs have to learn the fundamentals of French cuisine when they go to cooking school. That makes it a sort of mother cuisine.


So, any listing of influential chefs has to include the pioneers of the nouvelle cuisine movement because it impacted how all chefs cook. Most of them are now dead but one man is still around: Michel Guerard. You could argue (as Guerard’s fans do) that he may even have invented nouvelle cuisine though he called it Cuisine Minceur.


   He remains the chef’s chef. Ferran Adria told me in an interview Guerard was one of the chefs who had inspired him and whom he admired greatly. I ate his food when I stayed at the spa-hotel he runs at Eugénie-les-Bains and though I was supposed to eat only the diet menu (which was pretty spectacular) he discovered that it was my wife’s birthday, asked us to dispense with the dieting, went into the kitchen and turned out one of the best meals I have eaten.


   Contrary to what many people think, nouvelle cuisine was not about dispensing with butter or cream but about presentation, cooking times, texture and getting rid of flour-thickened sauces. Guerard’s food went a step ahead and even reduced the dairy fat content of each dish. And his influence has endured.


 Alain Ducasse: There are two ways in which Ducasse has been influential. The first is in terms of ingredients. The great French chefs were admired for creativity and techniques. The Troisgros brothers’ most famous (and influential) dish was probably their salmon with sorrel because they cooked the fish for less time than was normal at the time and took the starch out of the sauce. But in all the raves I have read about the dish, nobody talks about the fish itself and where it came from.


Ducasse changed all that, favouring minimal intervention and arguing that the source of the ingredients was as important as the way in which they were cooked.


   He also demonstrated that a great chef could run more than one Michelin three-star restaurant. Three of his restaurants have had three stars at the same time and though he himself no longer approves each dish before it goes on the menu, his name serves as a guarantee of quality. Other chefs have tried to repeat this feat but few have succeeded.


Ferran and Albert Adria: Though Ferran Adria was the face of El Bulli, his brother Albert devised many of the techniques that made the restaurant so famous. The importance of the Adria brothers is that they introduced new techniques that influenced nearly every professional kitchen and they taught chefs not to be respectful of form. The famous EL Bulli ‘olive’ looked like a solid olive but when you put it in your mouth, it dissolved into a liquid that tasted of an intense olive flavour.


The Adrias managed to capture flavour in foams and airs that did not overwhelm the main dish.


   Ferran no longer cooks very much but Albert remains one of the world’s most important chefs.


Rene Redzepi: There is no doubt that Redzepi changed many of the rules of European fine dining at Noma. You did not need a background in French food to cook there. The ingredients of the food on your plate may have been foraged that morning from a forest. A live shrimp could turn up on the menu. Ants were an early speciality.


Redzepi’s vision of cuisine has challenged many of the rules. It helps also that he runs Noma with the help of young apprentices (called stagiers) from all over the world who go back to their countries and spread the gospel of Noma.


   Now, 13 years after Noma was ranked as the best restaurant in the world, Redzepi’s impact on how other chefs cook remains a subject of discussion. Did he change the way in which they looked at food? Or did he have more impact on diners who revised their expectations of a restaurant meal?


"For some reason, whenever lists of influential chefs are compiled, Nobu always gets left out. Actually, he is the most influential Asian chef in living memory."

 Massimo Bottura: The problem for Italian chefs who wanted to run fine dining restaurants was that their cuisine was often seen as a collection of dishes and recipes. French food, on the other hand, was regarded as a system of techniques which creative chefs could use to create their own dishes.


Till Bottura came along, Italian chefs who wanted to go upmarket tried to Frenchify their food, going for French presentation and techniques and often losing the essential Italianness of the cuisine.


   Bottura broke with that style, found joy in lasagna, tortellini and traditional dishes, reinventing them with style and humour. For instance, he says that in his family everyone always fought over the crunchy part of the lasagna. So, he created an entire dish based around the crunchy bit. He saw that Parmigiano Reggiano, the cheese from the region where his restaurant is located, had been reduced to tasteless, sawdust-like generic Parmesan all around the world.  He found new ways of cooking with the cheese and re-introduced the world to its true glory.


     No serious Italian chef can be unaffected by Bottura’s influence on Italian cuisine.


Gaggan Anand: The most influential Indian chef alive. In his early days, Gaggan was identified with the molecular gastronomy movement because he had worked with the Adria brothers. Certainly, his spherified papri chaat (the yoghurt explosion) is the most copied modern Indian dish on the planet. But his other innovations were as successful: He began serving a menu of small, mostly starch-free bites, he eliminated the importance of rice and rotis in the meal, he put no cutlery on the tables expecting guests to eat with their hands, he re-invented such staples as the ghewar and the Calcutta fish chop, and he used ingredients like sea urchin that nobody had ever associated with Indian food. Just as people used molecular gastronomy to describe his early dishes, they then began to compare him to Japanese chefs before finally giving up and admitting that his style was entirely his own.


As important: He was the first Indian chef western chefs saw as an equal not an ethnic curiosity, from the time he appeared on Chef’s Table to his placings on the lists of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.


Daniel Humm: There have been chefs who have loved vegetables before. Alain Ducasse made sure that vegetables occupied pride of place on the menu. Alain Passard took meat off the menu of his three-star Paris restaurant and won praise for his vegetables dishes. But nobody has taken as big a risk on vegetable-based food as Humm.


When he reopened his three-star Eleven Madison Park in New York after the pandemic, he eliminated all animal products from his menu, going not just vegetarian but vegan. To the surprise of the food establishment, guests loved the food and the restaurant was booked out months in advance. And the real surprise came last month when Eleven Madison Park retained its three Michelin stars.


   Unlike Ducasse, Passard or the others, Humm is primarily motivated by his concern for the planet and the damage that the rearing of animals for food does to the environment. So unlike, say, Passard who has put meat back on the menu, Humm is ideologically committed to running a plant-based restaurant.


   He says he finds it liberating. The old non-vegetarian menus, he says, had become boring. He had to choose between five or six proteins and find new ways of cooking them. Now, he says, there are no boundaries. He can find ingredients anywhere and cook them any way he likes.


   Michelin said last month that Eleven Madison Park will serve as ‘A North Star” for young chefs who will absorb its influences and recognise that fine dining does not have to be all about meat.


Heston Blumenthal: The most influential chef on the planet today. Blumenthal is self-taught which, by itself, is unusual at this level of gastronomy. His contributions to so-called molecular gastronomy are at least as profound as the Adria brothers (nobody had heard of ice-cream made in seconds with nitrogen, for instance, before Blumenthal came along). But that was just the starting point for him.


He has since done so many other things that it is hard to keep track. In terms of technique, he has taught us how to cook the perfect French fry (triple cooked), the perfect steak (flip it every 15 seconds or so) and even the perfect chicken tikka masala. He has shown us how flavours can be combined by somebody with imagination: His famous snail porridge grew out of a marriage between congee and a snail dish he already had on the menu. He showed us how bacon can enhance the flavour of ice-cream. And more surprisingly, he found flavour similarities between white chocolate and black caviar.


   Not content with all that, he went back into history, researched medieval English dishes and re-invented them at his Dinner by Heston restaurant, becoming the only chef in the world to specialise in both, the food of tomorrow and the food of yesterday.


   Once he had done what other chefs pride themselves on (ingredients, flavours and techniques), he became the first chef to move into a more complex area: Food and the mind of the person who eats it. At his flagship Fat Duck restaurant, the emphasis is on a full sensory experience, appealing to the nose, the eyes and the ears while drawing on memory and other reference points from the diner’s life.


   His view is that food cannot be viewed in isolation: It is always enjoyed by human beings and unless you can figure out how and why real people respond to dishes, you can’t really offer a complete gastronomic experience. These insights have influenced famous restaurants all over the world from Alchemist in Copenhagen to Ultraviolet in Shanghai, none of which would exist with Blumenthal’s influence.


   Blumenthal has ADHD, a subject he spoke movingly about at a recent conference. When you combine ADHD with a brilliant brain, you get a genius who achieves great things very quickly and then moves on. That may explain why, by the time he was 50 he had already recorded achievements that would take other chefs several generations to achieve.


Nobu: For some reason, whenever lists of influential chefs are compiled, Nobu always gets left out. Actually, he is the most influential Asian chef in living memory. It was his idea to invent a new kind of Japanese cuisine that tweaked traditional dishes (black cod in miso) added spice to Japanese food, and created new dishes inspired by Japanese staples (rock shrimp tempura).


Most Japanese restaurants outside of Japan serve Nobu’s version of Japanese food rather than the traditional cuisine. Few chefs can have been that globally influential.



Posted On: 06 Nov 2022 10:25 PM
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