In the ’70s, it happened to fashion designers. In the ’80s, to Hollywood agents. Now, the Fates of fame are elevating a new group of creative professionals to star status: the country’s great chefs.
Suddenly, culinary artists are hot — largely because they’ve gotten out of the kitchen. On the TV Food Network, round the clock; on dozens of websites as elaborate as French service; and on the tops of the best-selling book charts, chefs are proving that they’ve mastered marketing as well as market shopping to become bona fide celebrities.
And they’re entertainment celebrities, at that. In restaurants crafted to be theatrical experiences, a new generation of star chefs is following the success recipes of Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck, expertly balancing artistry and showmanship. Here, EW Metro picks the 10 most important names in American dining today.
LE CIRQUE, NEW YORK CITY
Sirio Maccioni, the owner of America’s most prestigious restaurant, Manhattan’s Le Cirque, was once asked: If you could have two meals before you died, whom would you ask to cook? His reply: Paul Bocuse and Sottha Khunn.
Bocuse, the legendary French chef, is well-known. But who is Khunn?
This April, every food lover will know Khunn, when the relocated Le Cirque opens in the New York Palace Hotel. Born to a prominent family in Cambodia, Sottha Khunn (pronounced So-tah Koon) trained in several of the world’s best restaurants, including the renowned Troisgros in Roanne. In 1984, Khunn and his friend Daniel Boulud moved to New York City, where Boulud became chef at the Hotel Plaza Athene’s Le Regence; in 1986, Boulud was lured to Le Cirque and brought Khunn with him as sous chef.
The shy, diminutive Khunn so impressed Maccioni that when Boulud left to open his own restaurant, Khunn was offered the top job at Le Cirque. But the famously retiring Khunn, 46, turned down the position. ”I’m a cook, not an administrator,” he demurred. When the position came up last year at the new Le Cirque, Maccioni would not relent. ”He’s a genius,” says the boss. ”Why should I look all over the world?”
JEAN GEORGES, VONG, JO JO, NEW YORK CITY
In this diet-conscious age, achieving spectacular flavors and textures with little if any butter or cream has been the grail of many young chefs. One has mastered it: an intense Alsatian with the tongue-tying name Jean-Georges Vongerichten (pronounced Vong-her-eesh-tin).
A protege of Louis Outhier, chef of L’Oasis on the French Riviera, Vongerichten (below) came to New York in 1986 and soon opened his elegant bistro, Jo Jo. Drawing upon his years working for Outhier in Bangkok, Vongerichten later launched the sprawling Vong, serving explosively flavorful Thai-inspired French fare and cross-cultural creations like Muscovy duck breast with a spicy tamarind-sesame sauce. But the 40-year-old chef’s most ambitious venture opened this month in the extravagant new Trump International Hotel. Called Jean Georges, it is a minimalist 64-seat room (with a 60-seat cafe and lounge adjoining) that will bring back the all-but-lost art of formal tableside carving.
“The food we serve smells so good,” the normally reticent Vongerichten says in his staccato tones. “We enjoy that in the kitchen, but the people who are paying get none of it.”