Composite by Nathan Cyphert
We write regularly about all the most interesting, accomplished, and innovative figures in food and drink — the most powerful people in food and the best chefs in America and internationally and, heck, even the nation's top event planners. Now, though, it's time for our annual salute to the coolest people in the gastronomic universe.
Of course, you can be cool and powerful, cool and interesting. You can certainly be cool and innovative. In fact, part of the point of our singling out cool folks in these areas is that men and women who are genuinely cool tend to be the true originals, the true creators — precisely because, being cool, they aren't overly concerned with what their colleagues are doing or how the critics judge them or what all those Yappers, er, Yelpers might think. Cool people just do what they do, usually really well, and in so doing, lead us into new territory.
The tricky thing about compiling a list like this, of course, is that defining cool is more difficult than defining powerful, interesting, and the like. Cool is elusive, subjective, ephemeral. I mean, what is cool, anyway?
Well, it's an aesthetic, a way of behaving, an attitude; it has to do with self-confidence, self-assurance, aplomb, imperturbability, a sense of perspective. Cool people are true to themselves, and don't serve the masters of fad or fashion. Hipsters aren't cool. Cool is the opposite of trendy, the antithesis of "hot." If you think you're cool, you might very well not be. If you say you're cool, you're definitely not.
The people we've chosen for our list express their cool factor in various ways. It might simply be a matter of how they approach their chosen métier or how they deal with critics and/or customers. It might be shaded by the way they dress or act or decorate their bodies (are tattoos cool? only cool ones) — though this isn't enough in itself to make them cool. It might have something to do with outside interests, whether it's playing a mean blues harp (like Norman Van Aken) or giving up playtime to do some good in the world (like José Andrés, John Besh, and Ann Cooper, among others). It might be none of the above.
On our roster, you'll find famous chefs (like Jacques Pépin, who was cool when chefs weren't even cool yet, and Mario Batali, who's cool in spite of himself); a couple of celebrity distillers (Tito Beveridge, Tom Bulleit) and a celebrity who has become a distiller, sort of (George Clooney — really? yes, really); an unconventional barbecue pitmaster (Aaron Franklin); a groundbreaking wine bar entrepreneur (Paul Grieco); a coffee roaster-cum-adventurer (Todd Carmichael); even America's coolest grocer (Darrell Corti), who's so cool that he'll think being included on a list of cool people is just plain silly.
You'll note that our lists of the Coolest People in Food and Coolest People in Drink are alphabetical. We haven't ranked our coolest people; we haven't told you who we think is the coolest of them all. That's because there are no degrees of cool. It's like "unique." You either are or you're not. Cool?