Portale, McInnis, Gorenstein, and More: Is The Classical Chef Dead?

It was while watching the PBS show Point of View about the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France pastry competition (Kings of Pastry) -- in which classically-trained pastry chefs undergo intense training and pressure to vie for the honor of being one of France's finest craftsmen in their field -- that I wondered whether the notion of the old-fashioned European chef was, in this country at least, dead.

So I contacted a number of local chefs and asked them a series of questions relating to this idea. Rather than reprint the full set of answers chef by chef, I've divided the replies so that each query is responded to by each chef -- almost like a conversation. Participants are Alfred Portale of Gotham Steak in the Fontainebleau Hotel; Todd Erickson of Haven Gastro-Lounge; Jeff McInnis of the upcoming Yardbird Southern Table & Bar; Sam Gorenstein of BLT Steak; and Jan Jorgensen of Two Chefs.

New Times: With chefs becoming more involved with food trucks, noodle shops, and other informal small plates restaurants -- let's say a general emphasis on street foods taking hold -- and with the Food Network and other media emphasizing personality rather than serious skill, do you think the old idea of the classic, French-trained chef is becoming irrelevant?

Alfred Portale: The classical chef isn't dead -- they've evolved. Food trucks, informal noole shops, etc. represent an expanded, new segment of cooking. These types of things aren't going to replace types like Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges Vongericten -- rather they're creating new territory.

Jeff McInnis: I wouldn't say the notion of a classical chef is totally outdated. Rather we are in the midst of a culinary evolution, which was inevitable. The need for a chef to reinvent himself or add a new twist of his own on a classic technique is apparent. However, the key is to reinvent great food while still respecting the foundation of classical cuisine -- those are the chefs who will prevail in this culinary evolution.

Personally speaking, the classically, French-trained chef has not become irrelevant to me. When I decided to become a chef in 1994, there was no Food Network, and I even recall being poked fun at when I told my buddies of my aspiration. But nothing could keep me from heading to the local restaurant right after high school to roast veal bones, make potatoes duchess, and whip hollandaise sauce for twenty minutes by hand until my arm felt like Jell-O.

Sam Gorenstein: The "old idea" of classic, French-trained chef is definitely still relevant today in the new upcoming era of young chefs. The classic training is the foundation that every chef uses, if they realize it or not. The way one makes a stock [or] sauce to the way they cook a vegetable, all was classically tweaked over the years to perfect what we do now. Hollandaise sauce, for example, is used religiously every Sunday across the nation when it comes to brunch. Do they know the origin of this sauce? Doubtful, though they know it is delicious and how to make it (hopefully from scratch, not out of a packet).

Todd Erickson: No, I don't think the notion of the classical chef is dead. Evolved maybe, but definitely not dead. Every graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (my alma mater) is classically trained. Every one of those graduates heads is filled with Escoffier's le Guide Culinaire and McGee's On Food and Cooking. What those graduates do with those recipes, methods and vocabulary is entirely up to the individual, but more likely than not, they will make a demi glace from scratch (le Guide Culinaires' 1/2 brown stock plus 1/2 Espagnol reduced by half) or sear an "airline" chicken breast utilizing McGee's Maillard reaction or even whip up a "cream gravy" which Escoffier calls a Bechamel.

To address the noodle shops and food trucks: Both have been around for a long time and will continue to be, but just like the Froyo craze in the '80s and the bagel blitz in the '90s, they too will lose their cachet and just become part of the status quo. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the food trucks and actually have several different ideas that I've been throwing around about building one. I also love picnics, pot lucks, and pizza parlors, but do not want any of those on a nightly basis.

Jan Jorgensen: The word classical can be derogatory as well as a compliment...a classical car equals prestige, money, etc. A classical chef equals old school, old fashioned, out of touch. But how about classical chef = graduated the school of hard knocks; knows his shit; learned a trade. It's an interesting question...I hope that my trade will be kept alive. I was always told "As long as some will pay, you get to cook." I think it's important to continue to challenge oneself as a cook. Because one chooses to dish up food from a "truck" or "noodle shop" doesnt mean that one can skip integrity and quality.

Entities you mention such as food trucks, TV, etc. definitely have shaped a new landscape in the food service industry. I think we should continue characterizing (cuisine) into fine dining, fast food, casual, etc.

How has The Food Network and the media in general affected the notion of what a chef is?

Jeff McInnis: It is irrelevant to most Food Network fans if a chef they are watching on TV is classically trained. Whether they are watching Julia Child or Rachael Ray, the average viewer is looking for pure entertainment with the hope of maybe learning a thing or two. Both The Food Network and The Cooking Channel present an array of creative food shows that offer platforms to both classically and uncharacteristically-trained chefs and personalities. The rise of these cooking networks, as well as the advent of food trucks and the informal street dining scene has made the public more aware of the industry and the food they eat in general, which can't be a bad thing.

Jan Jorgensen: I'm sure that the classical "Master Chef" as you and I know him would love to be on Gordon Ramsey's new show "Master Chef." Unfortunately a wrong message is being served up on these shows. As Mark Zuckerberg changed our social behavior (in my opinion not for the better), Gordon Ramsey and friends paint a false portrait of my craft. I would love to see these "graduates" -- actors of reality TV -- spend a Saturday night on the line at The French Laundry or similar (restaurant).

Todd Erickson: I agree that the huge popularity of food media and stardom has sparked a desire in thousands of young individuals to enroll in culinary school with the misleading notion that they too will quickly be snatched up by the powers that be at The Food Network and be instantly launched into foodie stardom. Unfortunately that is not the reality; dropout and failure rates at esteemed culinary schools are high due to aspiring Food TV stars quickly realizing that cooking is hard work. The aspiring chefs with serious skill work their ass off doing what they love to do and parlay that into a fulfilling career. Those are the chefs I respect; they are the chefs that are doing what I continue to do on a daily basis.

Alfred Portale: The media has emphasized personality ever since Paul Bocuse was featured on the cover of Time. Think of personalities like Wolfgang Puck. Personality and skill coexist in today's world, it's not a matter of one over the other. Mario Batali, Rocco DiSpirito, Tom Colicchio -- these are all highly trained chefs.

Tomorrow:Same chefs weigh in on ballotines, pulled sugar, chef uniforms and kitchen discipline: What do these mean in the 21st century?

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