Quick, think about 2011 and answer immediately: Which chefs most embody the pursuit — and achievement — of excellence over the course of the year?
Whether you're measuring by newsmaking milestones or constant level of performance, who is it that defined the culinary landscape, transformed it — setting the standard everyone else either looks to or challenges?
The Daily Meal's editorial staff asked that question and thought hard to come up with nominees, chefs in America and on the international scene who could be considered gamechangers, pioneers — culinary standard-bearers. Some cook reguarly in their kitchens. Some dream, create, manage, and imagine. Looking out on the landscape, there was no dearth of candidates. Consider just a few obvious chefs in the U.S.
Grant Achatz in Chicago, the wildly lauded chef of Alinea, launched Next, a restaurant that changes cuisines every three months. Paris 1906 was first, then a Tour of Thailand, and perhaps most ambitious, Childhood. Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokonas, reinvented how people look at reservations; reintrepreted cocktails, bar food and experience at The Aviary; and published the well-reviewed Life, On the Line.
There's Thomas Keller, who with a four-star re-review of Per Se by then-critic Sam Sifton of the New York Times, demonstrated that he is upholding the highest standards at restaurants on two coasts, and who is now expanding his empire (he opened Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills and Rockefeller Center). There was also the little detail of being awarded the Legion of Honor by the French.
What of the Mario Batali juggernaut? Last year, besides garnering a four-star review in The New York Times for his Del Posto — the first Italian restaurant to win that honor in 35 years — he launched the massively successful food hall and Italian megamarket Eataly. This year, he announced plans to open five to 10 more of same. By the way, he also stars in the first network daytime food show.
Daniel Humm published a cookbook and received a third Michelin star for Eleven Madison Park, which, with his partner Will Guidara, he bought from Danny Meyer. Oh, and he's opening a second restaurant in the NoMad Hotel this winter. David Chang launched a magazine that has people buzzing about what it means for chefs and publishing. José Andrés, another chef who keeps opening successful restaurants, was increasingly active in hunger relief causes, and opened America Eats Tavern in D.C. He's also working on a Bazaar in Miami.
Gabrielle Hamilton came out with a book and won national recognition. Marcus Samuelsson scored second place on Top Chef Masters, launched a food site, competed on The Next Iron Chef, and opened a restaurant late last December that if not a four-star experience, has at least been lauded for what it's doing for Harlem, and for its approach to bringing together restaurant goers from diverse backgrounds.
And that's just talking about some of the obvious candidates who could have been nominated for Chef of the Year in America.
On the international scene there are obvious choices, too, among them Ferran Adrià, who with closing el Bulli and announcing plans to convert it into a foundation, practically owned 2011, and René Redzepi whose Noma took over the title of "world's best" (and probably hardest-to-get-into) restaurant. But there were plenty of other chefs who showed culinary greatness, innovated, and expanded.
Chefs get acclaim for opening new restaurants. Fergus Henderson did that and with it opened a hotel. Albert Adrià now heads Tickets and 41º, which many consider the places to experience avant-garde Spanish tapas now that el Bulli closed. David Chang opened Seiōbo in Sydney, announced plans to open restaurants in Toronto, and hey, see above about that little buzzed-about magazine. Gastón Acurio, a superstar in South America, opened La Mar Cebecería New York, his second restaurant in the U.S. And Massimo Bottura's Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana was awarded its third star, the only restaurant in Italy to win that honor in 2011.
So how to narrow down the field? The Daily Meal's editorial staff invited an illustrious panel of judges, mostly restaurant critics, food and lifestyle writers, and assorted bloggers, from around America to help. The panel and our editorial staff voted anonymously, and the percentages of votes for each chef were tallied in order to determine the chef of the year in two categories, American and international.
When panelist and editorial votes were tallied, there were two chefs who stood far ahead of anyone else in their categoriess: Grant Achatz and René Redzepi. Thanks to all the panel members, and congratulations to both chefs for their contributions and achievements to the culinary world.
But as these chefs would likely tell you, they haven't been doing what they're doing for awards, and neither plans to linger on his accomplishments over the past year. 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 2012, and to find which chefs they would have nominated for the honors we gave them.
Click for 2011 Chef of the Year, America: Grant Achatz — The chef discusses whether Next is worth the work, chefs who blow him away, the possibility of a Next food truck, and reveals how Alinea might change, including the possibility of closing it in Chicago and going on the road.
Click for 2011 Chef of the Year, International: René Redzepi — The chef discusses refurbishing Noma; its homemade wine, beer, and schnapps program; weather as narrative; how to become a stagiare at Noma; and how his culinary philosophy can be applied outside Scandinavia.