How the Role of Chefs Is Changing, Evolving & Expanding

Anne McBride wears many hats. She’s an accomplished food writer, having contributed to Food Arts and Gastronomica and co-authored multiple cookbooks with Francois Payard; she’s the culinary program and editorial director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Culinary Institute of America; and she is working towards at Ph.D. in food studies at NYU, where she’s also an instructor.

Anne’s research focuses on the evolution of professional cooking and how the role of chefs in society has changed over the 21st century. As she explains, the way we think about chefs in popular culture today is drastically different from how we’ve seen them in the past — and the implications for chefs today are huge.

Here, we ask Anne all about her research, the state of the restaurant industry, and what chefs need to know to succeed.

Tell me how you got into this area of focus and decided to research the role of chefs.

I came at it through the evolution of my research. My very first research idea was around the use of Coca-Cola in traditional cuisines around the world; in Colombia and the Philippines there are dishes that use Coca-Cola, and they are considered national dishes. 

It morphed into ideas of national cuisines in the U.S., which evolved into New American cuisine. So when I started looking at that time period of about 30 years ago, that’s when things morphed into the state of the research today.

Which is what, exactly?

The subtitle is “the making of the 21st-century chef,” looking at what makes our chef different from 20 or 30 years ago. Looking at the role of the chef overall, but really focusing on the chefs of today — what’s different for them than the chefs who came of age in the ‘80s and the ‘60s. What differentiated Bocuse from a Redzepi, for example.

Historically, how have you seen that role evolve?

I’ve really been able to see three different stages. The Bocuse area in the ‘70s, ‘80s, nouvelle cuisine — the biggest shift is the chef as entrepreneur: the chef who becomes an owner of his own restaurant, versus before, just being in the kitchen. Suddenly the chef also starts to come to the dining room and present his or her food.

In the ‘80s in American cuisine, Larry Forgione and Jeremiah Tower — all of these people got a lot of press and attention. They were huge celebrities with endorsements. This isn’t something that just happened.

And then with Food Network, starting in 1993, what we see is the chef as entertainer. Also, who is a chef becomes less clear for the public, because a lot of people who are TV chefs are not restaurant or professional chefs. Or they end up having restaurants after, like Giada.

Then, more recently, the chef as expert. A lot of the chefs who have the biggest renown are not necessarily on TV, or if they are it’s on documentaries like “Mind of a Chef” or “Chef’s Table” — the more brainy type of things. It’s not a performance of cooking, it’s who they are. Or they have to be really opinionated on questions of sustainability or politics; they have to be very informed about a variety of things beyond cooking. And they are trusted because we think of them as experts. 

Why do you think the evolution has occurred?

I have to give you a non-academic answer, because my advisor would hate for me to be drawing such conclusions. But I think it’s a little bit of everything.

Part of it is the public asking more of chefs than cooking. Your opinion matters. The chef has more power in his or her restaurant; with tasting menus, it’s become not unusual to go to a restaurant and have no choice whatsoever. Or no modification. You’re really placing yourself in the hands of the chef. 

I’m trusting you to give me great food, but also I trust that you’re sourcing sustainably. By eating at your restaurant, I’m embracing not just your creativity but your values, and then they reflect on you. 

That’s for the consumer. For the chef, you want to be more informed, so you’re going to step up your game a little bit. Cooking is not just about cooking anymore, for better or for worse. Their work has given them the tools to do something bigger than they previously might have thought. I don’t think Redzepi went to open Noma thinking one day he would turn it into an urban farm and something completely different.

I guess you reach a certain level of success and discovery and curiosity, and it leads you in certain directions as an artist.

Exactly. Or a craftsman, even. I’m always torn about the “artist.” [Laughs.] There is definitely a lot of artistry, but a lot of chefs also talk about the repetition of it, the fact that your team needs to be able to replicate your vision.

There’s this shortage of cooks problem that the New York Times has written about, and then at the same time you see rising costs, so some restaurants and chefs are focusing specifically on scalable concepts, like pizzerias, because you can teach people how to do it quickly. Will there be the one percent eating at Noma and the rest of us eating pizza?

In New York we have Contra, which is more in the line of the Parisian bistrotheque, where it’s a tasting menu but it’s $65. In Paris there are so many like that, 65 or 70 euros versus 450 euros or something.

There is a movement among these younger chefs I think to not just do burgers and pizza. That can be what keeps you in business, but a lot of them want to do something a little bit more exciting.

You always hear people say that food is a lens for looking at society as a whole. Is there a larger commentary to make, looking at the way we eat and think about chefs?

That’s a good question. You always hear chefs are the new rockstars, or farmers are the new rockstars.

I think the really smart chefs never really forget that ultimately their job is to serve people, and it can be dangerous — and can make this industry fairly unpleasant — when people forget that. Because ultimately it is a transaction.

It’s so easy to be blinded by the glamorous part — “people come to eat my food because I have something to say.” But ultimately they’re coming to eat your food. 

It’s a really interesting moment. We’re more removed from cooking, so the work of people in that profession becomes more mysterious? But at the same time, you can buy any equipment for your home kitchen. Everybody is sous-viding their sandwiches. [Laughs.]

Sometimes I get jaded about this industry. If I read one more superlative headline on Eater, I’m going to sell insurance. But then you hear some chefs who get a lot of attention, and they really do deserve it because they have a point of view and a perspective and an approach that is really unique.

There’s so much going on above the noise that’s really fascinating.

I was just interviewing a chef who’s 66 and he’s opening a new restaurant. That’s why I do this. In so many other fields at 66 you’re fishing in Florida and you’ve counted the days until that moment. He was like, I can’t do anything else. To be so passionate about what you’re doing, I think that’s pretty specific to this industry. 

Do you think because of these changes you’ve observed in the role of chefs that different people are attracted to the industry than maybe were in decades past?

Yeah. I’m trying to track down statistics on that, but informally, there are a lot of career changers and people who have degrees in other fields who get into cooking. It’s no longer what you do because you couldn’t do anything else; it’s really a choice now. 

And the whole professionalization of it. People get culinary degrees now, invest a lot in their education. A culinary education is not just about cooking anymore. You’re not just learning knife skills and sauteeing, but you’re learning public speaking. 

In the industry, there’s this disconnect: chefs are investing more and learning more than ever before, but the industry isn’t paying enough to make it a sustainable career. How do you see that playing out, with the business catching up?

I think we’re at a pivotal moment for that. It has to change, basically.

In the U.S. in general we pay so little for our food, and that’s true whether it’s fast food or fine dining. Yes, places like our three-Michelin star restaurants are pretty expensive, but they’re half the price of what you’d pay in France. Seeing a bunch of restaurants making the switch to tip-included and all-included propositions I think will help tip the scale a little bit to keep people in the kitchen.

That’s the downside of the industry having expanded so much: you can have a culinary degree and work in so many jobs now, not just cooking. And so many restaurants are opening constantly, so there’s more competition for great talent. Yes, there are more people coming out of it but they can also get a lot of jobs that may have benefits and work nine to five.

It’s funny, because the job of the chef or the persona has become more and more appealing and glamorous in the public’s eye. But the actual work remains just as grueling as it ever was, and a lot of people don’t want to do that. It’s tedious and repetitive, and we’re not really living in a time when tedious and repetitive is what we’re interested in doing.

Even in the most creative and innovative restaurants, there’s still an element of repetition because at the end of the day, you’re feeding people every night.

Rosio Sanchez, the pastry chef [at Noma] — there was an article about her the same day as the announcement about Noma closing. They were like, why are you making tacos? And she was like, because it’s more fun. She was talking about the repetitive aspect of fine dining, and that type of food in general is repetitive. You have more creative freedom with tacos.

And the pressure to innovate. People have waited six months or a year for their reservation, and it is a special occasion. You may not be going to celebrate anything, but just the fact that you are there. The expectations are insanely high. 

Never mind reviewers, but your food’s going to be on Instagram the second you’re open. You can’t mess up. That must get to people at some point.

What do you think about the Instagram phenomenon and personal branding for chefs in general? Those have come about with these new personas of chefs.

I think that direct connection between chefs and diners is a positive thing. Some of it is still very filtered; there are of course some chefs who are not doing their own Instagram. But I think when used well it’s such a great resource.

Is there a place at all for people who just want to cook and open a restaurant and don’t want to be speaking on policy?

Yeah, that makes them super cool! [Laughs.] They have to be vocal about their desire to not be vocal about anything.

I think it can be frustrating for some chefs. They want to cook, be hospitable, create a great experience for their people, but they feel they have to compete with the social network and that becomes hard for them I think. If their restaurant isn’t as full as they want it to be, they’re going to resent the fact that others are getting attention.

It’s not always the restaurant that is the most popular that gets the most attention either. There’s the hipness factor and the flavor of the moment.

All those restaurants that don’t take reservations and make it so complicated — the day you don’t do that anymore, the day you need people to take reservations, that becomes noticeable. The day I can get a seat?

That’s the day nobody’s talking about you anymore.

Exactly. I think they probably all are terrified of that. Some chefs talk about the 50 Best never wanting to be number one, because you can only go down. It’s nerve racking because you can never really know what alters your position.

Michelin definitely has that pressure, and losing one star is devastating, but it’s harder to lose them. You have people who have had three stars for 30 years; are they still at the same level and still as interesting and relevant? A lot of people then don’t change what they do because they want to stay in that three-star rank.

I have a lot of respect for chefs who still do what they do really well. No one might write about them or talk about them, but the food is still really good. And some of those are still full, but people will never post anything online about them. There’s still a place for places like that.

Monsieur Benjamin, or The Ordinary in Charleston — these are places that do classic food but in a way that’s lighter and feels more contemporary.  It’s super exciting to see young chefs who are doing that type of thing, who are looking back at the classics and want to do something like that.

One thing I’m really interested in now in contemporary cuisine is the editing. Jeremiah and Fabian at Contra, the way they edit themselves is really special.

What do you mean when you say “edit?”

There’s never one extra flavor on the plate. They really stop themselves before adding that one thing that would have cluttered the flavors or muted them. They’re not afraid to display their craft and their skills in a way that looks simple.

That’s the biggest change from ‘80s or ‘90s menus: every spice and condiment listed in the description, let’s mix Asian, Mediterranean, Latin, all in one dish. Now there’s kind of a return to more subtle flavors. That’s also Dan Barber saying, it’s about honoring the ingredients.

That’s a clear example of a mutual understanding and appreciation — a trust that the skills are there. I trust that you’ve done your work. There’s things I may not understand that are more complex than they look. And that what I’m eating at Stone Barns I can’t eat in my own kitchen.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry today?

To remember to work hard, that they’re in it for the long run. They don’t need to have learned and understood everything in a couple of years. To give themselves time to learn from people and to mature as chefs before they go off on their own.

It feels old school sometimes to talk about paying your dues or taking the time to learn and not rush into things, but there’s really some value there. It allows you to develop your own point of view and perspective, because you’ve laid foundations by seeing how other people do it and seeing how they arrive at their own point of view and perspective. 

I’ve seen kids graduating from the CIA and having done really well in school, and they’re like, I’m going to do this contest and that means I can open my own restaurant. But are you going to be good for the long run? It’s too soon to tell, but will you stand more of a chance of burning out? Because some of the things you learn from working with people is also how to you sustain that curiosity and that enthusiasm.

Anne McBride Photo Credit: John Barkley; Kitchen photo by Erin Kunkel.