Who are the chefs, in America and on the international scene, who are the real game changers, the pioneers — the culinary standard-bearers? Which chefs most embody the pursuit — and achievement — of excellence? These are the questions The Daily Meal's editorial staff asked ourselves when we launched our inaugural Chef of the Year awards in 2011. We asked the same questions again at the end of 2012.
Read More: 2012 American Chef of the Year: José Andrés
Last year's award for American Chef of the Year went to Chicago's Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next, and The Aviary), not only for his continually inventive cooking but also for reinventing how people looked at restaurants, reservations, and cocktails. Our International Chef of the Year award went to René Redzepi, who a year after wrestling the top spot on the World's Best Restaurant List from elBulli with his Noma in Copenhagen secured the number one spot for a second time, and brought international attention and acclaim to Scandinavian cuisine, making Denmark an essential destination for any serious gourmand.
As was the case last year, there was no dearth of possible winners in the culinary landscape. Some cook regularly in their kitchens; some dream, create, manage, and imagine. All contributed to a year of exciting new food developments. Consider just a few obvious chefs in the U.S.
Chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., demonstrated that Southern food is more than barbecue, fried chicken, and shrimp and grits. Chef Eric Ripert could be considered not just for keeping Le Bernardin's four stars from The New York Times, but for his remarkable consistency over the years (and for always being there). Chef Thomas Keller was a possibility for upholding the standards of The French Laundry and Per Se, and leading the charge, with chef Daniel Boulud, to have an American chef compete successfully in the Bocuse d'Or. Some may be tired of hearing about him, but David Chang was also in the running for continuing to expand his Momofuku empire and for remaining a major inspiration to young chefs.Both Andrés and Bottura, we suspect, would tell you that they haven't been doing what they're doing for awards — and neither plans to linger on his accomplishments. So we reached out to ask where they, and their cuisines, are heading, to discover where we might expect these standard-bearers to lead their colleagues in 2013.
Ultimately, though, our choice was Spanish-born powerhouse José Andrés. Andrés launched a food truck, Pepe, in March (#49 on The Daily Meal's inaugural list of 101 Best Food Trucks in America), opened a new restaurant in Miami (The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel) in June, and then unveiled the reincarnation of his D.C. institution minibar in November. Before, between, and after that, all the chef did was to get named Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center in New York City, announce plans for a class at George Washington University in Spring 2013 called "The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization," become the culinary advisor on NBC's Hannibal Lecter TV series, and sign up for the American Chef Corps, a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership launched by The State Department and the James Beard Foundation. Oh, and he continued his charitable efforts in Haiti where he has begun filming a project that will highlight the country’s gastronomy. Along the way, he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012 by TIME magazine. Slow year, huh?
On the international scene there were many possibilities, too. Elena Arzak was named The World's Best Female Chef 2012 by San Pellegrino for leading her family restaurant Arzak (founded in 1897) forward (it has ranked within the top 10 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list the last five years, and was the first Basque restaurant awarded three Michelin stars). Chef Alex Atala of São Paulo's D.O.M. led his restaurant from 40th place on the San Pellegrino list in 2008 to fourth place in 2012. And what about Albert Adrià, out from behind his brother Ferran's shadow and kicking butt at 41 Degrees and Tickets in Barcelona? Whew. Again, not an easy choice. Ultimately, though, we chose Massimo Bottura, Italy's newest Michelin-three-star chef, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena topped The Daily Meal's inaugural list of the 101 Best Restaurants in Europe. Drawing on such classic local products as prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar but approaching his menus with a novelist's or historian's sense of narrative, Bottura is one of the most innovative chefs in the world today — and a good bet to start bringing back a little gastronomic glory to a food-crazy nation whose restaurants have lately been eclipsed by those of Spain and Scandinavia.
Both Andrés and Bottura, we suspect, would tell you that they haven't been doing what they're doing for awards — and neither plans to linger on his accomplishments. So we reached out to ask where they, and their cuisines, are heading, to discover where we might expect these standard-bearers to lead their colleagues in 2013, and to find which chefs they would have nominated for the honors we gave them. In the following interviews, learn about their take on tasting menus, how both chefs dealt with the experience of working with the overwhelmingly influential Ferran Adrià, and what they hope their legacies will be.
Interview with Chef of the Year, America: José Andrés — Chef Andrés talks about tasting menus, time travel, social responsibility, working outside your comfort zone, the state of food in America, and why Spanish chefs love gin and tonic.
Interview with Chef of the Year, International: Massimo Bottura — Chef Bottura talks about the challenges of having some of the world's best ingredients, the importance of narrative, and the secret behind a successful tasting menu.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.