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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Are "Emperor Chefs" Like Michael Mina and Thomas Keller a Good Thing?

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 8:03 AM

Emperor Michael Mina.
  • Emperor Michael Mina.

Wolfgang Puck. Michael Mina. Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Thomas Keller. Chefs, who used to be invisible and nameless kitchen generals, have become celebrities. And since the 1990s, more than that -- they're empire-builders. Yesterday, Huffington Post ran a feature about the class of nationally known "emperor chefs" who have spread their brand to cities around American and even the world. (San Francisco's own Michael Mina now runs 18 restaurants and bars, while the nation's first emperor chef, Wolfgang Puck, owns 92.)

Obviously, the emperor is rarely on site to direct his kingdom. Up until the last decade, SFoodie never heard the term "chef de cuisine" -- head of the kitchen -- used outside the hotel world, and now every half-hearted foodie uses it to refer to the many cooks who run restaurants in the executive chef's absence. The effort required to open and sustain that many restaurants is mind-boggling -- recipe databases, master restaurants that train staff for new places, months-long training sessions.

One of the most chilling quotes, at least to SFoodie, came from Vongerichten: "My view is that the first three months of a restaurant is best," he told the reporter. "Even though they're green, there starts to be turnover after that. Then you have to train the new team while the bus is running -- which is obviously much harder."

Three months?

An empire is not inherently evil. Some chef emperors, like Todd English, are becoming renowned for the spotty quality of their food, while others -- Thomas Keller -- have not lost a single Michelin star as they've scaled up.

The biggest problem with empires is that the chef's indiosyncratic, personal vision easily becomes lost. As GQ critic Alan Richman tells the Huffington Post, the only reason for the rise of the emperor chef is money. "Cooking is one of the most individual enterprises in the world," he says. "There's nothing that lends itself less well to franchising than cooking."

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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