There are many routes to a cooking career. Not so long ago, military and prison kitchens were reliable sources of line cooks for American restaurants. Now the siren song of reality television lures many recruits to kitchens and culinary schools.
But until recently, very few American chefs were born into the profession. Even the luminaries who led the American food revolution of the 1970s and ’80s found their own ways to the stove – through travel, like Alice Waters, or anthropology, like Rick Bayless. Their parents were hardly encouraging.
“Cooking was not considered a respectable or profitable profession,” said Maria Guarnaschelli, an eminent cookbook editor and the mother of Alex Guarnaschelli, who is the chef at Butter, in Greenwich Village. “We never thought our daughter would be a chef.”
Now, a generation of chefs and entrepreneurs who grew up in the kitchen are shaping American food.
The sons of pioneering American chefs like Norman Van Aken, Bradley Ogden and Larry Forgione have grown into their own chef’s whites. Sara Jenkins, 48, the chef and owner of Porsena and Porchetta in the East Village, trained her palate from childhood by globe-trotting with her mother, the Mediterranean food expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Two of the most influential chefs in the Austin, Texas, area are Bryce Gilmore, of Barley Swine, and his father, Jack Gilmore, of Jack Allen’s Kitchen. Bryce, 30, grew up learning at Jack’s elbow – but today Bryce is coaching Jack, who quit a job as a corporate chef after 20 years to get back into the kitchen, in modern culinary arts like curing and cultivating relationships with farmers.
Second-generation entrepreneurs like Nicolas Jammet, whose parents, Rita and Andri Jammet, owned New York’s elegant La Caravelle, are using their food knowledge outside the kitchen. Nic, 28, discovered an appetite for sophisticated, sustainable fast food while still in college; the chain he founded in 2007 in Washington, D.C., Sweetgreen, just opened its 20th store in the trendy NoMad hotel in Manhattan.
And some chefs who grew up in less rarefied settings – like Eddie Huang, 31, whose Taiwanese parents ran steak and seafood restaurants around Orlando, Fla. – are using their own professional kitchens to revisit the true flavors of their childhoods.
In all these ways, building on the work of food-world pioneers, the next generation is moving the culinary conversation forward.
That is, when their mothers will let them into the kitchen.
Maria Guarnaschelli published authoritative cookbooks by writers like Julie Sahni and Barbara Tropp when most Americans neither knew nor cared about authentic cooking. But she didn’t teach Alex to cook, because she couldn’t tolerate messes or mistakes in the kitchen.
“I became a chef in spite of her,” the daughter said, “but I am a perfectionist because of her, and I couldn’t be a chef without that.” (Last year, Alex, 44, worked up the courage to write her own cookbook, a resolutely lighthearted, messy and nonauthoritative book titled “Old-School Comfort Food.”)
When Dennis Lee, 33, and his brothers, Daniel, 32, and David, 30, started a business selling hot dogs from a stand in Golden Gate Park, their Korean-born mother was not enthusiastic. Even though the hot dogs were organic and garnished with kimchee and gochujang, cooking was the family business that she wanted her sons to escape.
“We were supposed to be doctors, not hot dog vendors,” said Dennis, who is now the chef at Namu Gaji in San Francisco, which is owned by all three brothers.
The whole family had worked long hours at Dah-Mee, the popular pan-Asian restaurant in Natick, Mass., where their mother commanded a regiment of Korean, Japanese and Thai chefs. She insisted that staples like miso and soy sauce be made from scratch. Dennis became the kitchen’s key translator among languages and cuisines. Namu Gaji’s izakaya-style small plates, like napa cabbage, radish and pluots dressed with tangy ponzu and crisp seaweed, reflect how the brothers ate; the organic farm they’ve started reflects how hard they worked.
“I think that secretly or unconsciously, they were training me to stay in the food business,” Dennis said of his parents. “They instilled in me this crazy work ethic where I always have to be in the kitchen.”
Multigenerational restaurants are not a new idea. In Europe, toques are routinely passed down from father to son to grandson – and in a few recent cases, like Elena Arzak and Anne-Sophie Pic – from father to daughter. Restaurant dynasties in the United States include the Canlis family in Seattle, the Bastianichs in New York and the prolific Pappas family in the Southwest, who have birthed about 80 restaurants: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Pappasito’s Cantina and more. But in those clans, business responsibilities are passed down, not culinary inspiration.
Chefs who grow up in working kitchens have both advantages and disadvantages.
“I’d call it a gifted curse, or a cursed gift,” said Marc Forgione, 34, whose father, Larry Forgione, was one of the first chefs to put regional American cooking on the fine-dining map, at his Manhattan restaurant An American Place, which opened in 1983.
Marc grew up not in Manhattan but on Long Island; he worked in the kitchen part time for pocket money, but never planned to become a chef. “I didn’t know my father was a celebrity chef,” he said.
“That didn’t even exist at the time. I knew I liked food – my mother is a great cook – and I knew my father’s job meant that he worked long hours and wasn’t home a lot. It didn’t seem like a great professional choice.”
It was only later, he said (after college, driving around while “Appetite for Destruction,” the first Guns N’ Roses album, played on the car stereo) that he understood how cooking could be a calling. “The same way a musician uses notes to make a great song, a chef can take a raw piece of meat and make a great dish,” he said. He plunged in, working full time for prominent chefs in New York – often, he said, with more senior cooks watching and waiting for him to fail. “Kitchens are rough places,” he said. “Everyone has to prove themselves. Being the kid of a legend makes it harder, not easier.”
In 2004, partly to escape the phrase “Larry Forgione’s son,” he went to live and work with influential French chef Michel Guirard, at his restaurant in a remote corner of Gascony. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Marc said with characteristic bluntness. “I knew no one. I spoke not one word of French. I just put my head down and worked like everybody else, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., for a year.” It was the skills he gained there, anonymously, he said, that provided the confidence to return to New York and open his own restaurant.
At the other end of the privilege spectrum, New York chef Ann Redding grew up outside Bangkok, in a family where cooking was the only professional option. Her grandmother raised six daughters alone, supporting them by growing and selling vegetables from a stall. An aunt was a cook at the royal palace.
Redding’s aunts became skilled cooks at a young age, making snacks to sell by the roadside; her mother’s specialty was miang kham, a savory parcel of dried shrimp, chilies, peanuts, lime and coconut, wrapped in fragrant leaves from the betel nut tree. When she can get fresh betel leaves, Redding, 38, serves the dish at Uncle Boons, her restaurant in Nolita, where she uses her experience in kitchens like Daniel and Per Se to evoke the Thai flavors she grew up with.
“It is a romantic memory, sitting with my grandmother while she crushed herbs with the mortar and pestle, talking about what soup my aunt had made for the royal family,” she said. “If you’re a kid and you’re around that obsession with food, it does stay with you.”
For Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, growing up in the kitchen of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., gave him the sense that cooking wasn’t just a job, but a way to change the world.
“When he started East Coast Grill, farm-to-table wasn’t a thing,” he said of Chris Schlesinger, his uncle, who opened the restaurant in 1986. Schlesinger embraced an earthy, lively, DIY approach to cooking that was revolutionary at the time.
“My great-grandmother made her own soap and grew her own vegetables and cured her hams and used her own fatback, so he had a basic appreciation of that stuff built into him,” said Schlesinger-Guidelli, 30, who started in the kitchen at the tender age of 5. “And I learned from him that you don’t let corporations do for you what you can do for yourself.”
Now, Schlesinger-Guidelli works at Island Creek Oyster Bar, a deceptively simple place in Boston that incorporates many of the big ideas about food that his uncle helped promote.
The menu is built around local ingredients like lobster, honey, cream, monkfish, clams and cucumbers, bought directly from the people who raise, catch or dig them; its owners, Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory, also own the sustainable Island Creek Oysters in nearby Duxbury, Mass., which supplies many top restaurants in the Northeast; and the company’s foundation promotes aquaculture as a form of safe global food production, financing projects like a shellfish hatchery in Zanzibar and tilapia farms in Haiti.
Schlesinger-Guidelli didn’t plan on a career in food. But after he graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in political science, he found he had little interest in politics. Now, he says, it is both his upbringing in the kitchen and his education outside it that inform the work that he wants to do.
“Political science is about motivating larger swaths of people to care about issues,” he said, “like where their oysters come from.”