Young people have long tumbled into restaurant work, but today men and women in their twenties are striding into professional kitchens with a definite sense of purpose. "When we, the Generation Xers, started thinking about careers, we were looking for a creative outlet, something more hands-on, and the culinary industry was in the limelight," says Gina DeCew Donald, the 29-year-old executive chef of Spago Hollywood. "I remember watching a TV program about The Culinary Institute of America. I thought, 'I can go to a college where I can do this?' I was hooked."
Cooking has become one of the decade's hottest careers, a development that has helped draw young people into the profession. Restaurants have become entertainment, filled with diners who once might have gone to the theater or to a nightclub for the evening. Mediagenic young chefs--especially those who appear on TV--are part of the phenomenon.
The influx of young talent has given a creative surge to the culinary world. "Young chefs are open to experimentation," says Tim Ryan, senior vice president of the Culinary Institute of America. "They're a little looser, a little freer. Sparks can fly." One reason young chefs have been able to embark on such explorations is that many of them have traveled widely and experienced foreign cuisines at the source. Diners have traveled as well and so are receptive to new ideas back home. "Customers know more than ever," says Andrew Carmellini, the 27-year-old sous-chef of Manhattan's Le Cirque 2000. "They can differentiate between a Meyer lemon and yuzu, a look-alike Japanese citrus fruit."