American Culinary Icons
From a 19-year-old blogger to a 91-year-old restaurateur, these nine culinary icons represent the past, present and future of American cooking.
Culinary Icons at Every Age
Culinary Icon: Teens
Blogger & Dessert Aficionado
Why She’s Iconic Because she represents her social-media-savvy generation. And because she has the talent and skill to translate her love of desserts into a website, 17andbaking.com, that feels wise beyond its years.
Her Audience “About two years ago, I asked readers to leave their locations with their comments. I still get new responses from people on every continent…except Antarctica.”
Her Indispensable Tool “I’ve learned how to bake without proper tools, but nothing replaces the Microplane for doing things like grating lime zest.”
Recipe: Key Lime Pie with Chocolate-Almond Crust © Eric Wolfinger
Culinary Icon: 20’s
Why He’s Iconic Because his dedication to his era’s hyper-focused, do-it-yourself approach at Flour + Water restaurant in San Francisco has allowed him to master Old World dough-making techniques along with modern innovations.
On Respecting the Past “You know when something isn’t cool, and then it’s cool again? Today, young people want to learn Old World techniques. They’re asking, Why let go of this?”
On Learning From Nonnas “The first time I picked up a rolling pin in front of ladies who’ve made pasta every day for the past 30 years, I was nervous as hell.”
Parsnip Triangoli with Aged Balsamic Vinegar © Ethan Hill
Culinary Icon: 30’s
Why He’s Iconic Because he represents the rise of the modernist chef. And because, at Chicago’s Alinea and Next, he breaks rules and confounds diners’ expectations, all in the name of creating new experiences.
His Impact “Everybody says molecular gastronomy is dead, but it’s not. Now we’re seeing the trickle-down effect. If I go into a neighborhood restaurant, I see techniques we were using in 2006.”
The One Modernist Ingredient All Home Cooks Should Use “Carrageenan, a seaweed, is in way more foods than you’d ever think. It gives puddings and custards an amazingly silky texture, and unlike gelatin, it sets when it’s hot, so you can make a savory butternut squash panna cotta and serve it warm as a side dish.”
His Latest Culinary Direction “For me, it’s not about technique-driven cuisine anymore. It’s about emotionally driven cuisine. I’m interested in the theatrical aspect of dining; not every plate has to have a foam on it.”
On Continuing Education “My newest restaurant, Next, is like grad school. We change the menu’s theme every three months—Paris 1906, Thailand, Childhood, El Bulli. I’ve been exposed to so many ingredients and techniques, and some of that floats back to Alinea.”
Future Projects “We finally closed on a movie deal; David Dobkin of Wedding Crashers is the director. We’re also working on a TV show about Next. So, for Kyoto, I’d fly there and eat all around, then we would launch the menu at Next.”
Culinary Icon: 40’s
Restaurateur & Television Chef
Why He’s Iconic Because he’s shared his love of grilling and Southwestern foods with millions of people on shows like Iron Chef America and Boy Meets Grill, and at restaurants around the country, including Mesa Grill, Bar Americain and Bobby’s Burger Palace.
Why He’s a Successful TV Chef “I don’t have a ‘TV persona’—I can’t act, so it’s important to be true to who I am.”
On The Start Of His TV Career “When I began working for the Food Network about 17 years ago, it was new and had no money. If you couldn’t get there by subway, you couldn’t be on it.”
What’s Next “I’m going to get in trouble for this, but in New York I would love to reinvent my Southwestern flagship, Mesa Grill, and reopen my Spanish place, Bolo. When I’m sitting in bed late at night, that’s what I think about—reinventing the cuisines that got me where I am.”
Video: Cooking tips from American culinary icon Bobby Flay
Culinary Icon: 50’s
Exemplar of Perfection
Why He’s Iconic Because he is the epitome of the ingenious, detail-obsessed chef. And because he mastered European technique, then showed America its importance to our cuisine at The French Laundry in Napa Valley.
On Getting Better “We used to tear off pieces of painter’s tape to label things. But in 2004, a server cut it with scissors instead. Now we all use scissors—there’s often a way to make an improvement.”
On the Joy of Repetition “I started out washing dishes when I was about 11. It requires the same skills as good cooking: organization, efficiency, teamwork and repetition. With repetition, you learn more about a technique each time you try it. In the case of poaching seafood, it’s all about maintaining an incredible amount of moisture—whether it’s lobster poached in butter or this cod poached in olive oil.”
Video: Culinary icon Thomas Keller in the kitchen
Culinary Icon: 60’s
Why He’s Iconic Because he created a new kind of innovative American cuisine. And because, when he opened Spago in L.A. in 1982, he looked beyond classic French and brilliantly combined flavors from around the world.
On L.A. “As a kid, I thought California was the hottest thing. When I arrived in 1975, I wanted to surf and ride a dune buggy. Instead, I worked all the time.”
On His Fame “I probably got a lot of attention because of Spago’s Oscar parties and the celebrities there.”
How He Stays Fresh “Next year, we’ll completely redesign Spago and its menu. I might keep some signatures, like my smoked salmon with dill crème. Or I might not; I’m not a nostalgic guy.”
On Retirement “When I was 30, I thought, If I’m not retired by 55, I’ll shoot myself. But I’m not ready—80 would be a good time to slow down a little bit.”
Crispy Potato Galette with Smoked Fish and Dill Crème © Lisa Levart
Culinary Icon: 70’s
Ambassador of Indian Cooking
Why She’s Iconic Because she introduced Indian food to America with An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973, and she continued to champion the cuisine in numerous cookbooks.
Her Family’s Food Tradition “Our caste was a caste of scribes, but we were also known for loving food and wine. We were sometimes called sharabi-kebabi, ‘liquor and food,’ and it’s one of the hallmarks of our community.”
On Being an Expert “I made a point of learning not only about India, but the rest of the world. I’ve been to Italy more times than I have to many Asian countries, and I cook everything at home. I was pigeonholed a bit, but I’m an optimist—I take advantage of what good there is.”
On Cooking Vegetables “I often use just one or two spices, such as the ginger and cumin in this Swiss chard. It’s a very northern Indian approach.”
Swiss Chard with Ginger and Cumin © John Kernick
Culinary Icon: 80’s
Champion of African-American Culture
Why She’s Iconic Because, while living in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward in the 1940s—a time of intense racism—she transformed her in-laws’ sandwich shop, Dooky Chase, into a sit-down restaurant that celebrated Creole cooking and African-American culture.
How She Figured Out Her Menu “The first thing I put on the menu was lobster thermidor, but nobody knew what the heck it was. I had to back up and do things we were familiar with at home, like oyster dressing and jambalaya.”
On Her Notable Art Collection “I knew a lot of African-American artists. In those days, they had no place to show their work. I’d pay poor artists with gumbo. Now I can’t afford their art—artists don’t have to swap their work for gumbo anymore.”
Her Dream for Dooky Chase “My vision has been the same since the day I got here: to make things nice in my community. Black people had nothing, no nice restaurant with a table and chairs. I’m still trying to make a first-class restaurant in my community. I’ll never be rich and I don’t care; I’m never going to give up. I’ll stay on this battlefield till I die.”
Okra Gumbo with Blue Crabs and Shrimp © John Kernick
Culinary Icon: 90’s
Steward of Authentic Chinese Food
Why she’s Iconic Because in the 1960s, when chop suey was the norm, she gave many Americans their first taste of authentic Chinese food at the Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco.
Her Lucky Break “The first years were hard. Finally, I met someone I’d known in China. He said, ‘You’re in a tough business.’ I said, ‘I’m a patient person.’ A few days later, he brought in Herb Caen of the Chronicle, who wrote about us. Business got better and better each day.”
How She Learned About China’s Diverse Cuisines “I was a student in Beijing during World War II. To flee occupied China, I walked with my sister to Chongqing; it took close to six months. Crossing different provinces, I found out the foods are quite different. In the north, for instance, people eat a lot of sorghum, millet and wheat instead of rice. In Shanghai homes, this stir-fried cabbage-and-pork recipe is typical.”