I said that last week’s challenge, to cook in the kitchen of chef Eric Ripert’s four-star Le Bernardin and recreate his subtly perfect seafood, would scare the chef-pants off of any chef. I can only imagine what it must have been like to face this week’s table, at which luminaries of the cooking and restaurant world had gathered to eat food that held emotional content for them: the food each would have chosen as his or her last meal. No, no pressure there. The cheftestants were, indeed, nervous, their jitters outweighed, I was glad to see, by their excitement to be cooking for these culinary giants.
I will say, though, that awe-inspiring as they are, the individuals in this particular group of greats are also among the nicest folks in the field. Lidia Bastianich is the closest thing we have among us to a Mother Chef. She has a really motherly quality, always warm and inviting. Her work on PBS showcases her generosity of spirit — she lets the world into her home and shows how she works, with the intention of truly sharing her craft and helping the viewer. Lidia is a great cook, and both her work and her son Joseph’s have been a huge influence on our restaurant community. Marcus Samuelsson is impressive on many levels. He has modernized Swedish food, transforming that cuisine into something that is right at home here in NYC. Also impressive is the fact that he is a UNICEF ambassador. His formidable accomplishments aside, he is just a great guy; he always has a smile on his face. He’s one of the nicest guys in the business.
Wylie Dufresne is another. Nice, articulate, smart, and talented. He spent years with Jean Georges as a sous-chef, first at Jean Georges and then at Prime, and opened 71 Clinton Fresh Food, before becoming influenced by Ferran Adrià and doing more avant-garde food. When looking at the earlier work of a “modern artist,” people commonly say, “hey, s/he can actually paint!” Similarly, here, Dufresne was already a very good, very accomplished traditional cook. My advice to anyone interested in going in the direction of molecular gastronomy or the like is to make sure you have a strong foundation in the basics first. You can see where Wylie’s heart lies, when his choice for a final meal is something as simple as eggs Benedict.
While not a chef herself, Susan Ungaro has brought great decision-making and her own dose of creativity to the James Beard Foundation, implementing great programming and stabilizing that fine organization. She was a pleasure to dine with.