What kind of guy could make orange Crocs seem cool? The same guy who’s a regular guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, opened a super high-end Italian megastore in the middle of Manhattan (and has plans to open a few more), and traveled through Spain in a convertible with Gwyneth Paltrow for television (and got paid to do it). Batali also gets points added to his cool factor for being responsive on Twitter, knowing how to party, putting Neutral Milk Hotel and X on the playlist at Babbo, and being a culinary TV star who puts his money where his mouth is, owning such restaurant powerhouses as Del Posto (the first Italian restaurant in 36 years to boast four stars from The New York Times), Babbo, and Osteria Mozza.
As lame as it sounds, John Besh really is cool because he cares so darn much. Besh is known for putting his heart and soul into everything he does — whether it’s giving back to New Orleans through the John Besh Foundation, serving as a judge and mentor on Top Chef, turning out topflight cookbooks, or developing a new restaurant concept — all without ever jumping up and down and saying "Look at me, look at me!".
The Berkeley-based Blank has been making documentaries for more than 30 years. Many of these are about traditional music, from Cajun zydeco to Blue Ridge Mountain fiddling to Polish-American polka. But music and food are never very far apart in Blank's viewfinder — see, for instance, his so-vivid-you-can-taste-it evocation of red beans and rice in his Always for Pleasure, a paean to New Orleans culture — and when he focuses on culinary matters, as in the fragrant classic Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers or the exuberant Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking, his passion for eating is unmistakable. The coolest food movie he ever made, though, was undoubtedly Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The noted German director of that name had bet documentary director Errol Morris that he would never finish his film Gates of Heaven, and promised to eat his shoe if he did. Blank's film shows Herzog cooking said shoe, with garlic and herbs, with the help of Alice Waters in the kicthen at Chez Panisse, then gamely chowing down. Wow.
Remember when British cuisine was known for being bland and unappealing, and putting pig ears on a menu would have seemed like a recipe for failure? The pressure of opening a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, with backers like Batali and Bono, could have been enough to crush any chef, but Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman nailed it, sparking a nationwide trend for nose-to-tail gastropubs with The Spotted Pig. After nine years, and having added The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar (which she closed and then reopened in The Ace Hotel to critical acclaim) to her plate, Bloomfield is still more likely to be seen cooking on the line than making TV appearances. And in case more proof of her coolness is needed, read this story about Bloomfield’s participation in a TimesTalk during the 2011 New York City Wine & Food Festival.
Three Michelin stars, four stars from The New York Times, four James Beard awards, the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur — if coolness were based on awards and acclaim alone, Daniel Boulud would be subzero. Forget the fact that almost everything he touches turns to gold, that he created the foie gras-stuffed burger, and that his restaurant DBGB pays homage to the much missed punk venue CBGB. In a time when attention has largely shifted away from French cuisine, Boulud consistently makes it relevant, and does it in a way that shows why being French always used to mean being cool and maybe should again.
You’ve read his books, you’ve watched him on TV, and you may have even gone to culinary school or taken a job as a fry cook because of him. It’s cliché to say it, but Anthony Bourdain pretty much lives the dream. As he says in the intro of his show, "I'm Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat, and I'm hungry for more." And while the bad-boy act has gotten a little old, and the second show (The Layover) seems pretty much the same as the first one, it’s hard to argue that Bourdain isn’t one cool dude, or at least someone you'd love to grab a drink and a great meal with.
During his five-year tenure as restaurant critic for The New York Times, Frank Bruni turned the tables on readers and restaurateurs. He was funny, he was biting, and in his review choices, style, and scope, it was always evident that he wasn't afraid to boldly wield the power of the position; this was a critic who for one column tried his hand at waiting tables, and in another piece visited some of the country's most epic fast-food spots. His reviews inspired a blog devoted to Bruni parodies and spurred one thin-skinned restaurateur to take out a full page ad in The Times attacking him, and Eater.com ran a regular feature to handicap his stars. And he did it all while having an eating disorder. As good as Sam Sifton's one-stellar-line-per-column reviews could be, the position hasn't been the same since Bruni left the job to become the paper's first openly gay op-ed columnist.
At this point, imagining a New York City culinary scene without David Chang would seem almost… well, un-American. You could talk about the hype and the attitude, the food magazine (Lucky Peach) published with McSweeney's, the growing empire, the pork buns, the ramen, the aesthetic (consider the restaurants’ décor and the graffiti mural outside of Ssäm Bar), the online reservation systems for special meals, the attention to detail (service and otherwise), and the fact that Chang showed a generation of chefs that you could open up a new class of quality dining without the white tablecloths. You could talk about all that, but you’d be missing the core coolness that started it all: the fact that with his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, Chang put it all on the line — all that pork, all that soul — and success or failure, he was going to do it the way he was going to do it, vegetarians be damned. And he did.
Yes, Scott Conant is cool. Not because he was a Food & Wine Best New Chef and is generally considered among the contemporary benchmark setters in America's Italian fine dining scene. Not because he’s frequently on TV as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped, and certainly not because, as it was recently revealed on that show, he hates red onions. But if you follow him on Twitter, you know the chef is just as likely, if not more likely, to retweet people making fun of him than someone paying him a compliment. "God forbid you feed the almighty Scott Conant a raw red onion. He will banish you to Choppedville." "Scott Conant saying someone has too much ego? Oh the irony." When you’re comfortable enough with yourself to amplify other people’s criticism of you, you’re pretty cool.
A title like "The Renegade Lunch Lady" isn’t just given, it’s earned — and for good reason in this case. Ann Cooper has dedicated her life to improving the quality of school lunches for children, as well as bettering America’s relationship with food, farming, and overall well-being and health. When has unstoppable passion and determination, especially when met with success, not represented someone worth admiring? Cooper, an author and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has been recognized by publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and honored by Slow Food USA for her work. Policies, legislature, or big corporations be damned, she is a woman on a mission and for that she is incredibly cool.
Chris Cosentino is a former skater who serves diners at his packed San Francisco restaurant things like heart tartare and pork-blood rigatoni with pigs' trotters. He has a shop in the Ferry Building where he sells house-cured meats, he has designed his own shoes and clothing, and he has written an issue of Wolverine, in which he makes a cameo, that’s scheduled to hit the comic book stands soon. Need we say more?
Soft-spoken and amiable, Del Grande came to Texas from California with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, turned himself into one of the best and smartest "new Southwestern" chefs, and galvanized the Houston dining scene with his Café Annie and then the more casual Taco Milagro and the Café Express chain. Along the way, he started playing guitar and singing with Dallas chef Dean Fearing, at first casually in hotel rooms at food events and later with their band, The Barbwires, sharing the stage with people like Steve Winwood, Rodney Crowell, and Richie Furay. Returning to his scientific roots, Del Grande has recently concocted, with distiller Don Short, the first-ever Texas-made gin, called Roxor and flavored with Texan botanicals (pecans, anyone?).
When it comes to New York City pizza, this man is a legend. After emigrating from Caserta, near Naples, to New York City in 1959, DeMarco opened Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J in Brooklyn and has been doing it his way, pie by pie, ever since. The pizzas — stretched out dough, ladled sauce, sprinkled cheese, a drizzle of oil, scissor clippings of fresh basil — are all lovingly made by the guy, how and when he wants, and drooled over by lines of locals and tourists in the know. If you haven’t braved the masses to taste a Di Fara pie, you have no right to be talking about pizza.
John T. Edge is geek-chic royalty as far as the food industry is concerned. He was wearing thick-rimmed glasses long before every hipster in America starting sporting a pair, and his signature soul patch makes him look more like a distinguished professor than a pretentious literary snob. Through his frequent contributions to publications such as The New York Times, Saveur, and The Oxford American and his stewardship of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge gives Americans a reason to feel proud of the foods they love to eat (he’s written entire books dedicated to fried chicken, apple pie, and burgers and fries). Fans of Edge and his work know that one of the coolest things about him is his writing style — he has an uncanny ability to not only make the reader feel like they’re sitting down at the table with him, but also to share his undeniable passion for the food and culture he’s writing about.
Best known to TV audiences and cookbook buyers as one of the Two Hot Tamales — with longtime colleague Mary Sue Milliken, her collaborator on the Border Grill restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas — Feniger is a leading expert on Mexican and Latin American cuisine and on international street food. She's also an exuberant personality (try to find a photo of her where she's not laughing or at least grinning broadly) with a magnificent mane of hair and lots of earrings, who once revealed that her childhood hero was legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. Works for us.
When you make barbecue so good that people start lining up for it at 9:30 in the morning, you’re hot. When you open only for lunch and close when the food you've made runs out, you’re a good businessman. When you have a Twitter account that can pull off a handle like Barbecue_Jesus, you’re clever. When you’re mentioned in the same breath as Hill Country legends like Smitty’s and Kreuz’s as part of America’s barbecue elite, you’re on a roll. And when the meats you smoke back up your being named the best barbecue in the country, well… you get the point.
In essence, a cool guy is someone who knows who he is and uses his strengths to the best of his ability. So who is cooler than a guy who, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize for his food criticism (as well as countless other awards and accolades), continues to use his influence to shine a light on the small, mom-and-pop restaurants in Los Angeles? Gold — who recently left LA Weekly for the larger canvas of the Los Angeles Times — can write a vibrant, captivating column about an outstanding Thai restaurant in a strip mall located in the middle of nowhere and as a result get throngs of Angelenos to venture there for a meal.
The California-born Christopher Hirsheimer (right) — Ms. Hirsheimer to you — has lived in Australia, Hawaii, and Illinois and has been a restaurateur, a corporate chef, a caterer, a food stylist, a magazine editor (Saveur), and most of all, a game-changing food photographer, now widely imitated for her accessible, sensuous, natural-looking images. Melissa Hamilton (left), a native of New Jersey, once ran the test kitchen at Saveur and before that was the co-founder and executive chef of her father's popular Hamilton's Grill Room in Lambertville, N.J. Today, the two collaborate on the unique Canal House series of periodical cookbooks and create wonderful lunches daily (for themselves only, alas, though they're working on a book to share their recipes) at their canalside New Jersey studio. They definitely do it their way, and beautifully at that.
The general public got their first glimpse of this pastry rock star when he appeared as a judge on Top Chef Desserts, but New Yorkers had long been aware of him through his high-profile stints at Daniel (twice) and then Jean Georges. This "dough boy" looks more like some '50s heartthrob then a modern-day pastry chef, an image his rockabilly sideburns, technicolor tattoos, and passion for riding motorcycles do nothing to counter.
Some chefs might start thinkingthat they were pretty cool if they became the first female to win Top Chef; others might get an inkling when a nationally acclaimed publication like Saveur chose their restaurant to be the focus of the magazine's first full-scale restaurant review ever (and its a glowing one, at that); or maybe a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant would do it. We'd bet her cool factor hasn't occured to Izard at all. She just keeps her head down and makes great food and that's about as cool as it gets.
The coolest thing about Thomas Keller is that hes clearly doing exactly what hes supposed to be doing: he was born to be a chef, and has dedicated his life to becoming one of the best in history. Unlike some of his colleagues, who may have started life as musicians or scientists or such, Keller has been working in kitchens for about as long as he has legally been able to work, and his unwavering sense of focus and drive has defined his unprecedented career. Normally, ambitious perfectionists like him are known for being intolerable bosses but time and again, when up-and-coming chefs leave his kitchens to go out on their own and achieve success, they never forget to thank Keller for providing inspiration as a teacher and a friend, in effect reminding the public how cool he is.
How many people can pull off wearing a bow tie? Okay, then how many people can pull off a bow tie and overalls? Just one that we know of: Farmer Lee Jones (as he likes to be called). But forget the sartorial qualifications and just consider what Jones represents: The Chef’s Garden. In the 1980s, after losing a significant portion of their crops to a hailstorm, Bob Jones and his sons — Lee and Bob — decided to replant not with conventional crops but with exceptional specialty and heirloom vegetables, herbs, micro greens, and edible flowers specifically to meet the needs of American chefs — not in some lush California valley but in Huron, Ohio. Farmer Lee upholds the family tradition.
In a city obsessed with hamburgers, Pat LaFrieda is the man generally credited with revolutionizing them. Not many meat suppliers get shout-outs in restaurant reviews, but in Frank Bruni's 2009 restaurant review of Minetta Tavern, Pat did, and the Black Label Burger (rib-eye, short rib, brisket, and skirt steak) that he helped develop with chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson was no small part of it — though his famed côte de boeuf helped too. For following his own vision and curiosity against conventional wisdom ("You don't turn dry-aged beef into a burger!"), being a genuine person who hasn't let the attention go to his head, and carrying on a family business co-founded by his grandfather in 1922 — there's a street in Manhattan's Meatpacking District named for the family — Pat LaFrieda should be noted as one of the coolest guys in food.
When her restaurant Annisa (which had received two-stars from The New York Times) was destroyed by a fire in 2009, Lo re-opened the restaurant the following year and subsequently received another two-star review. She is reserved by nature, shy and focused, but Lo’s passion comes through in her food and in her competitive spirit. She fought fiercely alongside a cast of her peers (mostly males) in the first season of Top Chef Masters and beat Mario Batali in "Battle Mushrooms" on Iron Chef America in 2005, becoming the first challenger to take down an Iron Chef in the series’ history.
Some of the best chefs have tried their hand in New York City and failed. With the Manhattan outpost of his Fort Worth eatery Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Love put it all out there and didn’t quite make it. But as much as New Yorkers might not want to hear this, Gotham isn’t the center of the universe. And in his native Texas, where he has opened a number of successful restaurants, Tim Love’s universe just keeps expanding. Most recently he has launched Woodshed Smokehouse, also in Fort Worth, where the pits and hearths burn mesquite, hickory, oak, and pecan, and the fare includes brisket-stuffed piquillo peppers, 16-hour smoked beef shin for four, and "today's animal" with assorted homemade salsas. Sure, he’s a good old boy who does the whole, "We’re gonna drink tequila at a morning demo" thing, but he’s a nice guy, a real dude, and a great cook.
How did a former literature instructor at Yale become one of the world's leading authorities on the science of food? Through a strong sense of curiosity, plenty of common sense, and a lively intellect. Through his first book, On Food and Cooking, and other writings, he has galvanized chefs all over the world with his plain talk and myth-busting. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià salute him and formally trained scientists treat him as a peer.
Morimoto is cool for obvious reasons; his win/tie/loss record on Iron Chef America(16-7-1), his line of beers, and his original style of cooking and uber-creative presenting style are all pretty awesome. But apart from his success as a chef, restaurateur, and businessman, Morimoto epitomizes coolness in his demeanor and sense of whimsy. Who else would dream up creating a smoker for salmon out of ice during the heat of an Iron Chef battle?
This gentleman has some résumé: After working at Microsoft for 14 years as a chief technology officer, Myhrvold decided to try a new hat on for size — a chef’s toque, more specifically. A master French chef, he specialized in barbecue for a bit before writing 2011’s literary behemoth, Modernist Cuisine, where he explained and exercised new scientific technology and principles in cooking — proving once again that science plus cooking equals cool.
Pawlcyn was doing local and sustainable before a lot of today's local and sustainable apostles could put their Pop-Tarts in the toaster by themselves. She once opened a restaurant in a building shaped like an Airstream trailer (Fog City Diner in San Francisco) and now she owns (among other places) the best restaurant in the Napa Valley that isn't The French Laundry: Mustards Grill. And Pawlcyn comes from Minneapolis, which is a very cool place for a definitively Californian chef to come from.
There are few things in the culinary world that are less à la mode today than classical French cuisine. Jacques Pépin, who is a master of just that, doesn't care — he knows what's important. For decades, Pépin has generously shared his knowledge with the world, through books, TV shows, and educational programs at places like the French Culinary Institute and Boston University. But he's no French snob: He is proud of the fact that his first big cooking job, back in 1961, was developing recipes for Howard Johnson.
If you take a look at this Santa-sized master cuisinier, quite possibly the best French cook in America, at work in his kitchen, behind floor-to-ceiling glass, you'll likely see a man consumed with joy at the creative process. Richard seems to glow more brightly with every drizzle of sauce or scattering of garnish he applies to plates; his focus is so intense that you'd swear he's somehow beaming flavor down into his creations. He has found his place in the universe, and has a damn good time there — and anyone who eats his food shares in the fun.
Whether or not you’ve heard his nickname — The Ripper — you’ve likely heard of his restaurant, Le Bernardin, which made it to number one on our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America. If chef Daniel Boulud represents the old guard of je nais sais quoi French cool, then Ripert’s poise and understated bad-assery, not to mention his precision in the kitchen and Poseidon-like reign over seafood, is a reflection of the new school.
New York City artist Jennifer Rubell may have an impressive résumé — Harvard and Culinary Institute of America graduate, intern for Mario Batali — but most people know her for exhibiting a piñata of Andy Warhol’s head or a wax sculpture of Prince William. Rubell, who grew up attending dinner parties with Warhol himself, is something of a food-artist-cum-event-planner. Her larger-than-life food events (where you can eat the art) take an everyday meal and meld it with excess and awe. In Dallas, she’s dripped honey from the ceiling onto a ton (literally) of baby back ribs, and in New York, she padded a room with 1,800 cones of cotton candy. And Rubell’s cheese plate doesn’t come served cubed or on a cheese board: her version consists of elevated, life-sized cheese blocks in the shape of her head, blasted with heat guns, dripping onto stacks of crackers. And you thought food artists just made soup in a gallery for free.
It’s no surprise that Samuelsson landed a coveted spot on The Daily Meal’s list of the best-dressed chefs; he always arrives at any event done up to the nines, with his equally stylish model wife on his arm. Sometimes his style even pushes the boundaries, as at last year’s Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival, where one of our editors noticed that he showed up wearing fatigues in a country where camo is illegal. What is also noteworthy about Samuelsson is his ability to seamlessly create a globe-trotting cuisine unique to his varied cultural influences — African, Scandinavian, and regional American. Oh, and the fact that he brought a hip downtown-style restaurant to one of the liveliest streets in Harlem.
Cheesemonger, like beekeeper, is a profession that just recently became cool again. After turns at famous fromageries like Murray’s Cheese, Saxelby started small, with a booth at Essex Street Market. That booth grew into a fullscale shop, and now, she supplies cheese to a number of high-end restaurants, and stocks fromages for Daniel Boulud at his Épicerie Boulud. Saxelby’s rise is a tribute to the DIY ethos, and her success shows that sourcing locally and supporting small producers is a viable business practice.
Shire's chef's coat might be black or pink or pistachio-green, and her hair will probably be henna-red. Her food will undoubtedly be hearty, succulent, and sometimes even challenging. She did it her way, hocking her wedding ring to go to cooking school after her first marriage broke up and working her way through every good kitchen in Boston, before opening Biba there, and offering Beantown such fare as fried calf's brains with capers and black gnocchi with squid. She later revived the venerable Locke-Ober, and today serves great take-no-prisoners food at Boston's Scampo and Towne Stove and Spirits.
Sure, this pair looks cool. But more than that, they made offal cool in a town where the culinary cliché was as Woody Allen put it in Annie Hall, an order of "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast." Shook (right) and Dotolo's (left) first restaurant, Animal, sits defiantly two doors down from iconic Los Angeles Jewish deli Canter’s, while serving a daily changing menu that includes ingredients like pig ears, pig tails, and pig’s head (along with lamb neck, veal, and sweetbreads). The food is delicious, and the restaurant is packed every night. And while the dishes at their new(ish) eatery, Son of a Gun, aren't quite as daunting, the place is just as popular, demonstrating that their food is more than just a passing fad.
One hundred years after opening in 1912, Swan Oyster Depot isn't trying to be anything other than what it was from the beginning: a cramped counter where you can order fresh oysters and Dungeness crab, shrimp and clam cocktails, a renewed-faith-in-life clam chowder, and the like, and wash it all down with an Anchor Steam beer. But it’s the crew that’s key here. Whether you visited two days ago, or two years ago, you’ll always see the same guys working the counter — fishermen, or fish men, pure and simple, all giving each other a hard time and entertaining and engaging customers in the process, in a way that feels like it’s been going on forever and somehow still isn’t schticky. The place is filled with dirty aprons, tousled hair, hands dripping from opening clams and oysters, conversations about hangovers and, asides like, "Oh, you got the phone? So you’re going to do some work today?" The guys behind the counter are real; they’re old-school cool.
For the millions of people who watch Michael Symon on their televisions each day, whether on ABC or Food Network, one thing is abundantly clear — this guy really loves his job. Perhaps the most incredible episode of Iron Chef America happened in season eight’s "Battle Cauliflower," when Iron Chef Symon stepped into the ring with challenger John Fraser sans sous chefs. The two chefs put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating five judge-worthy dishes in an hour — and not surprisingly, Symon came out on top.
You've never seen John Thorne on television, or at a glossy food and wine festival. He doesn't hobnob. He doesn't toot his own horn. He just sits in his house in rural Massachusetts with his wife and collaborator Matt Lewis and turns out painstakingly crafted, often grippingly evocate meditations on food and cooking — most of them published in his occasional newsletter, "Simple Cooking," and eventually collected in book form. He pretty obviously isn't doing what he's doing for fame and fortune; he's doing it because it's what he does.
"I hired Tosi to help us organize our 'office' — a desk in a hallway," chef David Chang wrote in the introduction to the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook. "Instead, she started organizing the company." High praise from a chef who’d already established himself as a phenomenon. Despite being only 29, Tosi has a culinary résumé that includes having worked in the kitchens of Bouley and WD~50 before blowing fellow cool kid Chang away with her chops at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar. Tosi’s outrageously genius flavor combinations and confident risk-taking set her apart from the pack. Many would argue that just by creating her now celebrated Crack Pie and Cornflake-Marshmallow cookies, Tosi did enough to secure a spot on this list.
This dude is so cool that his fellow contestants on Top Chef Masters a while back dubbed him Obi-Wan Kenobi for his Zen-like calm. Tranquilly slicing vegetables and heating up pans while other well-known chefs fretted and scurried, he was the picture of poise and self-possession. Before he became the TV and food festival guest star he is today (in addition to running his sensuously minimalist Italian joint Barbuto, in Manhattan), he cooked at Chez Panisse, brought California cuisine to New York City, and, way back, played trombone in a rock 'n' roll band.
Before the backlash against so-called molecular gastronomy, Achatz was the substance behind the style of this approach. His culinary pedigree includes training with Thomas Keller, Ferran Adri, and Charlie Trotter. Speaking of whom, after basically being told by Trotter that he was persona non grata, he returned to Chicago and took over the city first at Trio (making a suburb a must-visit destination for anyone serious about dining), and then with Alinea, where course after course, "cool" feels like a horribly inadequate adjective. For his next challenges, the chef took on the idea of a restaurant that completely changes concepts every few months, redefined the way restaurants think about reservation systems, and reinvented the cocktail scene. Now he's even thinking about reinventing aspects of the experience at Alinea. Considering his steadfastly creative approach to food, experience, and progressive cuisine, at 38 years old, Achatz isn't likely to stop impressing us for a long time.