You can never forget the one that got away. Chefs feel the same way about the legendary chefs they admire. So we asked ten toques to open up and tell us whom they wish they had had a chance to cook under.
Michael Schlow of Cavatina at Sunset Marquis, West Hollywood, California
“As I approached my 18th birthday, my parents asked, ‘Where do you want to go this year for your birthday?’
I replied ‘Lutèce.’
My parents choked. Then my dad said, ‘Well, it’s rated the number one restaurant in the country; you certainly have shot for the moon. Call and see if you can get us in.’
André Soltner was considered a God, a legend, the most exalted chef in the country – and my parents were giving me permission to go to his restaurant. Luckily, we somehow got a reservation. The meal was a culinary marvel – amuse bouche, quenelles of pike in lobster sauce, perfectly prepared foie gras, bass en croute, chocolate soufflé, petit fours. It was perfection in every bite. I remember the food like it was yesterday, but what I remember most was chef Soltner making the rounds thru the dining room, stopping at each table, chef’s hat tipped ever so slightly to the side, softly speaking to his guests to make sure everyone enjoyed their meal. When he came to our table, once again I froze and was rendered unable to speak.
Years later, I remember reading a story about how chef Soltner would end his night, inspecting the kitchen to make sure the crew had put everything away just right and cleaned properly and then he did his orders for the next day’s service. To finish, he would sit on one of the kitchen counters with a ripped hunk of bread, some country sausage, grain mustard, and a cold beer. A real chef’s chef. Making fancy food for his guests, only to make a late-night dinner for himself from some humble and simple things he found in the walk-in. That image has stuck with me till this day. It makes me wish I had gotten to work with him to not only learn his magical techniques in the kitchen, but to maybe have gotten to share a cold beer and some country sausage with him.”
Laurent Tourondel of LT Steak & Seafood, Miami Beach, Florida
“The restaurant I wish I had cooked at is Pierre Gagnaire. I was initially drawn to Gagnaire when I visited his first restaurant in St. Etienne for a 30-course lunch. I was inspired by his unique plating techniques, which were revolutionary in French cuisine at the time. He was at the forefront of the fusion cuisine movement and his innovative way of combining elements of different culinary traditions was inspirational while I was training early in my career.”
Greg Lloyd of Le Diplomate, Washington, D.C.
“Paul Bocuse is the reason I study and practice French cuisine. He was a master unlike others. He carried, mentored, and so willingly trained other chefs the techniques of his predecessors: Auguste Escoffier, Fernand Point, and Marie Antoine Carême, the founders of French cuisine. Their techniques still hold true today in many kitchens around the globe. I feel I would have benefited from learning and honing these classical techniques from him.”
Kathy Fang of Fang, San Francisco, California
“I would love to work with David Chang. Not only do I find his food delicious, but I admire his creativity in mixing Asian cuisine with other international cuisines. After watching Mind of a Chef with David Chang, I felt so inspired by the dishes he was making and how he came up with the ideas. I find my style of cooking to be in a similar vein as his, except he’s taken it to another level as he’s not afraid to break barriers and stereotypes on what certain dishes or food should look or taste like. The biggest thing to gain from working with him would be the courage to go out and cook amazing food that doesn’t fit in any category of cuisine.”
Chef Mike Pirolo of Macchialina Taverna Rustica, Miami Beach, Florida
“Vetri Cucina in Philadelphia by chef Marc Vetri has always been a restaurant and chef I truly respect. About 15 years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, I did two stages there on my days off, just because I admired the restaurant so much. What I love about Vetri Cucina is how genuine and how honest the food is. When I opened Macchialina, my vision for the cuisine was to tiptoe around the border of traditional Italian cooking practices. The constantly evolving, dynamic creativity of chef Vetri and his team at Vetri Cucina was something I wanted to carry over to Macchialina. Vetri Cucina’s multi-course tasting menu uses the highest quality local and specialty ingredients; it’s simple, yet elegant. The dishes are inspired by both classic Italian recipes and others from across the globe. It’s eclectic and doesn’t always follow the rules. What makes Vetri so legendary is that he’s constantly traveling to expand his knowledge, while discovering new preparations, ingredients, products, and flavors from around the world. He then translates them onto your plate, providing each and every guest with an unparalleled tasting experience.”
Hugo Bolanos of Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California
“One of my greatest sources of inspiration remains Ferran Adria and his famed El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain. Of particular interest to me are the early years, when he took over the restaurant, and a young José Andrés and Albert Adria worked on the stoves alongside him. This was the start of a true culinary revolution. It set the stage for not only what El Bulli would become, but it transformed modern cuisine. To have been a part of El Bulli at this time and cooked with these masters would have been magical and life-changing. I can truly say that thinking about this today inspires me to be innovative and look at everything I do in a different way.”
Galen Zamarra of Mas (farmhouse), New York, New York
“I had an opportunity to work at Hans Haas’ restaurant Tantris, in Munich back in 1996. I should have jumped at the opportunity, but I didn’t. In hindsight, it would have been a great learning experience and really broadened my repertoire. The cultural experience of living in Germany would have been just as transformative. When I look back at chef Haas’s simplistic approach to his cuisine and clean cooking style, I am sure it would have been very influential for me.”
Ben Pflaumer of Osteria Morini DC, Washington, D.C.
“Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns has a real connection with what he is growing, cooking, and serving. He has used it across many platforms to educate and lead the industry into better practices. Not only just for chefs but those in agricultural industries as well. I have always wanted to own a restaurant and farm that closely connected like his because the experience would be amazing and very inspirational.”
John Manion of El Che Bar, Chicago, Illinois
“I wish I got my shot at Charlie Trotter’s. When I was coming up as a chef in the late nineties, it was all about Trotter and my peers all made their way through there. He had a reputation for discipline, service, and excellence. Although I went in a different direction, Charlie is still the man to me.”
Rob Rubba of Hazel, Washington, D.C.
“Ferran and Albert Adria came to my attention around 2003-2004. I applied for a stage/internship twice while El Bulli was open, but it never happened. El Bulli changed the way I thought about ingredients and cooking techniques. The question of ‘Who says a peach is not as good as foie gras?’ enlightened me and caused me to throw out much of what I was taught up until then. I would spend half a month’s wages on a cookbook from El Bulli and my mind would be blown by the new ingredients, service ware, and aesthetic. I was pretty obsessed. I had to translate some of these books, which was a blessing because it really improved my Spanish and inspired a trip to Spain in 2005. Unfortunately, I never dined at El Bulli, but I did eat some of the best pintxos, tapas, and seafood of my life while there.
El Bulli became a driving force for me to be more progressive and modern in my cooking; I yearned to cook at that level of creativity and focus. That drive landed me in Chicago where I was able to stage at Alinea and work at the then-three Michelin-starred L2o. I just wanted to feel connected to that energy! Sometime around 2007, I even drove down to D.C. on a day off with my now wife to try to snag a canceled seat at the old Minibar circa 2007, but we had to settle for Cafe Atlantico.
I have zero regrets about never landing that stage/internship at El Bulli. It inspired me to make food that makes my guest as happy as myself. Food needs magic, and that can come in many ways.”
Have you experienced these chefs’ cuisines — or were you lucky enough to have eaten at any of the restaurants they wished they’d cooked at? Tell us here or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.