One of the things that distinguish a great chef is his or her love of food. Notice I didn't say fine food. Or fancy food. Good food doesn't have to be fancy, but it takes a lot of maturity and self-confidence to realize that.
My first cooking job was in my family's swim club in Elizabeth, NJ. I ran the grill, making burgers and hot dogs and grilled cheeses. My next job was at Burger King. By the time I got to Evelyn's -- a big, homey seafood restaurant -- I was hitting my stride. I started out as the guy who peeled the shrimp -- pretty low on the totem pole. By the end of my time there I was responsible for all the purchasing, and I pretty much worked every station in between. Now, Evelyn's is not fine dining. It's a good, run-of-the-mill seafood place. But I don't remember ever thinking that preparing that kind of basic food was beneath me. Maybe that's because the idea of a "celebrity chef" didn't really exist back then, and it wasn't something I or anyone I knew aspired to. I think even back then I derived a sense of satisfaction from preparing food well, regardless of how basic it was. I'm a great admirer of conceptual chefs like the great Ferran Adria (El Bulli, outside Barcelona) or Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, NYC) who experiment with culinary practices to push the envelope of flavor and texture. But when it's time to eat at home, I'm pretty certain Ferran isn't serving beet foam or foie gras cotton candy to his family. The man has a solid command of the basics, and probably roasts a chicken, or braises a piece of meat, just like the rest of us. Just as a great abstract painter starts with exceptional drawing skills before branching out expressionistically, Ferran started with a complete command of the basics, and used that as the stepping off point for his stylistic evolution.