There are many routes to a cooking career. Not so long ago, military and prison kitchens were reliable sources of line cooks for American restaurants. Now the siren song of reality television lures many recruits to kitchens and culinary schools.
But until recently, very few American chefs were born into the profession. Even the luminaries who led the American food revolution of the 1970s and ’80s found their own ways to the stove – through travel, like Alice Waters, or anthropology, like Rick Bayless. Their parents were hardly encouraging.
“Cooking was not considered a respectable or profitable profession,” said Maria Guarnaschelli, an eminent cookbook editor and the mother of Alex Guarnaschelli, who is the chef at Butter, in Greenwich Village. “We never thought our daughter would be a chef.”
Now, a generation of chefs and entrepreneurs who grew up in the kitchen are shaping American food.
Sons and daughters
The sons of pioneering American chefs like Norman Van Aken, Bradley Ogden and Larry Forgione have grown into their own chef’s whites. Sara Jenkins, 48, the chef and owner of Porsena and Porchetta in the East Village, trained her palate from childhood by globe-trotting with her mother, the Mediterranean food expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Two of the most influential chefs in the Austin, Texas, area are Bryce Gilmore, of Barley Swine, and his father, Jack Gilmore, of Jack Allen’s Kitchen. Bryce, 30, grew up learning at Jack’s elbow – but today Bryce is coaching Jack, who quit a job as a corporate chef after 20 years to get back into the kitchen, in modern culinary arts like curing and cultivating relationships with farmers.
Second-generation entrepreneurs like Nicolas Jammet, whose parents, Rita and Andr Jammet, owned New York’s elegant La Caravelle, are using their food knowledge outside the kitchen. Nic, 28, discovered an appetite for sophisticated, sustainable fast food while still in college; the chain he founded in 2007 in Washington, D.C., Sweetgreen, just opened its 20th store in the trendy NoMad hotel in Manhattan.
And some chefs who grew up in less rarefied settings – like Eddie Huang, 31, whose Taiwanese parents ran steak and seafood restaurants around Orlando, Fla. – are using their own professional kitchens to revisit the true flavors of their childhoods.
In all these ways, building on the work of food-world pioneers, the next generation is moving the culinary conversation forward. That is, when their mothers will let them into the kitchen.
Maria Guarnaschelli published authoritative cookbooks by writers like Julie Sahni and Barbara Tropp when most Americans didn’t care about authentic cooking. But she didn’t teach Alex to cook, because she couldn’t tolerate messes or mistakes.
“I became a chef in spite of her,” the daughter said, “but I am a perfectionist because of her, and I couldn’t be a chef without that.” (Last year, Alex, 44, worked up the courage to write her own cookbook, a lighthearted, messy and nonauthoritative book titled “Old-School Comfort Food.”)
Family work ethic
When Dennis Lee, 33, and his brothers, Daniel, 32, and David, 30, started a business selling hot dogs from a stand in Golden Gate Park, their Korean-born mother was not enthusiastic. Even though the hot dogs were organic and garnished with kimchee and gochujang, cooking was the family business that she wanted her sons to escape.
“We were supposed to be doctors, not hot dog vendors,” said Dennis, who is now the chef at Namu Gaji in San Francisco, which is owned by all three brothers.
The whole family had worked long hours at Dah-Mee, the popular pan-Asian restaurant in Natick, Mass., where their mother commanded a regiment of Korean, Japanese and Thai chefs. She insisted that staples like miso and soy sauce be made from scratch. Dennis became the kitchen’s key translator among languages and cuisines. Namu Gaji’s izakaya-style small plates, like napa cabbage, radish and pluots dressed with tangy ponzu and crisp seaweed, reflect how the brothers ate; the organic farm they’ve started reflects how hard they worked.
“I think that secretly or unconsciously, they were training me to stay in the food business,” Dennis said of his parents. “They instilled in me this crazy work ethic where I always have to be in the kitchen.”
Multigenerational restaurants are not a new idea. In Europe, toques are routinely passed down from father to son to grandson – and in a few recent cases, like Elena Arzak and Anne-Sophie Pic – from father to daughter. Restaurant dynasties in the United States include the Canlis family in Seattle, the Bastianichs in New York and the prolific Pappas family in the Southwest, who have birthed about 80 restaurants: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Pappasito’s Cantina and more. But in those clans, business responsibilities are passed down, not culinary inspiration.
Changing the world
For Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, growing up in the kitchen of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., gave him the sense that cooking wasn’t just a job but a way to change the world.
“When he started East Coast Grill, farm-to-table wasn’t a thing,” he said of Chris Schlesinger, his uncle, who opened the restaurant in 1986. Schlesinger embraced an earthy, lively, DIY approach to cooking that was revolutionary at the time.
“My great-grandmother made her own soap and grew her own vegetables and cured her hams and used her own fatback, so he had a basic appreciation of that stuff built into him,” said Schlesinger-Guidelli, 30, who started in the kitchen at the tender age of 5. “And I learned from him that you don’t let corporations do for you what you can do for yourself.”
Now, Schlesinger-Guidelli works at Island Creek Oyster Bar, a deceptively simple place in Boston that incorporates many of the big ideas about food that his uncle helped promote.
The menu is built around local ingredients like lobster, honey, cream, monkfish, clams and cucumbers, bought directly from the people who raise, catch or dig them; its owners, Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory, also own the sustainable Island Creek Oysters in nearby Duxbury, Mass., which supplies many top restaurants in the Northeast; and the company’s foundation promotes aquaculture as a form of safe global food production, financing projects like a shellfish hatchery in Zanzibar and tilapia farms in Haiti.
Schlesinger-Guidelli didn’t plan on a career in food. But after he graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in political science, he found he had little interest in politics. Now, he says, it is both his upbringing in the kitchen and his education outside it that inform the work that he wants to do.
“Political science is about motivating larger swaths of people to care about issues,” he said, “like where their oysters come from.”