The book is an attempt to get my arms around the expanding nature of the chef in America and what it means to be one today. The chef in the age of celebrity, the chef in the midst of a restaurant-as-theater bonanza, the chef in the middle of an American food revolution. Chefs today can do amazing things—from cooking great food to helping farmers raise it to improving school lunches for kids—but there are also chefs who expect adoration is due them simply for walking into a room with a chef coat on. We simultaneously adore and denigrate Rachael and Emeril, television icons—why? How did we become such a food neurotic country—cherishing carbs then fearing them (and just as we learned how to bake decent bread in this country). We are a fat country, so what do we do to lose weight? We embrace a high-protein, high-fat diet! We gorge on high-calorie, low-nutrition, sodium-saturated fast food. We've debased our hogs and polluted our chickens by breeding them in factories.
One of the great things chefs are doing is pointing the way toward the foods that matter, that are good for us—naturally raised animals, wild fish, freshly grown produce. That's a good thing. But chefs are also leaving their kitchens in big numbers, expanding their businesses beyond actually cooking and serving food. They smell the lucre and are looking for its source. Is this good or bad? The best have gotten to where they are by working their butts off for years and now they want some rewards. Nothing wrong with that. But what happens when you abandon the work that made you what you are, and what's the result for the rest of us?
The landscape has changed dramatically since I entered the Culinary Institute of America as a journalist in 1996. To describe some of those changes, I returned to the CIA to see if transformations there reflected changes in the industry (they did, in surprising ways). I returned to the kitchens of chefs I'd written about years ago to see how they were leveraging the cultural shifts in America to elevate their own work. And of course I found new kitchens to hang out in and new chefs to watch and listen to.
Why did I care so much? That was another thing I wanted to figure out. Much of the reason for writing a book is to answer your own questions. I'd fallen into this work of cooking and writing about it by accident and it had changed the direction of my life. What was it about this work that was so transformative? Why was it so compelling? Why had the country gone chef crazy? What is it about this work, the work of the chef? Who were the great ones out there, what made them great, and where were they headed?