Cooking for Your Culinary Hero

What happens when the very person who has inspired your cooking and served as a role model decides to come to dinner? It’s enough to make even the most professional and accomplished chef a little nervous. This month two chefs found themselves cooking for the greats.

At Petersham Nurseries outside London, Skye Gyngell cooked for the matriarch of California cuisine, Alice Waters. “She has long been my hero,” writes Gyngell in an article in the UK Independent, “both for the way she runs her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, and for her work and influence in the wider world of food.” Like many chefs, Gyngell respects and admires Waters’s keen focus on seasonal and organic produce.

Was I nervous when l found out that she was coming to lunch? Yes, very! And no, not at all. Above all, I was excited—it felt like a dream come true. I do confess that I arrived at work before 5am on Sunday morning, but as soon as Alice walked in … I relaxed. … She stayed late into the afternoon, spending time in the kitchen with the chefs, offering advice and telling stories.

On the other side of the world, Chef Chris Cosentino, of San Francisco’s Incanto restaurant, recently had the opportunity to cook for one of his heroes, Marco Pierre White. Not only did he cook for him, he reviewed White’s book, The Devil in the Kitchen, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

White set the standard for me of what a real working chef looked like. … When his cookbook “White Heat” came out in 1990, I was a freshman in culinary school. All of us students wanted to get our hands on it. Who was this guy who breaks all the rules and always speaks his mind, yet has Michelin stars to show for his work? He was unlike anything I had ever seen. He was it.

As Cosentino reports on his blog Offal Good, “It was great to be able to sit and have a drink with a man who has given me so much inspiration and drive.” What Cosentino doesn’t share is that he and White have a bit more history than that. In a write-up of the dinner for SFist, Mary Ladd reports that 10 years ago Cosentino showed up at the door of White’s restaurant asking to “stage” (work for free). Apparently White slammed the door in his face.

But that’s the thing with idols: Sometimes we overlook their foibles due to their greatness, and serve them the very best meal we can.

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