The Making of a Chef: Breaking Down Culinary Inspiration, By the Numbers

Who's more influential—Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges? Joël Robuchon or Ferran Adrià? Grandma or mom? One year into the "10 Dishes That Made My Career" series, we look back to search for some answers.

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Since we launched First We Feast a year ago, the "10 Dishes That Made My Career" series has been a lynchpin of the site. While we've had a few cocktail pros and brewmasters in the mix, the majority of subjects have been chefs, many at the top of their game—think Wylie Dufresne (wd~50), Sean Brock (Husk), and Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milk Bar). The question we present them with is simple: Which specific dishes have been most influential to your life as a chef?

Part of the fun is seeing the different directions they run with this concept. Some, like Dufresne, focus on techniques and concepts they learned from specific chefs and restaurants, tracing culinary ideas on their path through kitchens around the world. Others, like Liebrandt, are more enamored with ingredients, remembering the intensity of their first brush with raw fish or tripe. Almost all have something from childhood—a dish from mom, or a favorite snack—that continues to inform their palate to this day.

While there's no scientific way to chop up the data from these interviews, we did notice some interesting trends emerging week after week. Names like Robuchon and Adrià came up time and again, as did specific dishes like foie gras and fried chicken. Trips to France and Spain seemed to have shifted the perspective of many chefs, while simple pleasures like In-N-Out cheeseburgers kept them grounded.

Here, we look back through more than 40 interviews to find out what influences weigh most heavily on the minds of these chefs, based on how often they were referenced.

Most influential family members

Mom: 13
Grandma: 8
Dad: 4
Aunts/uncles: 3
Grandpa: 2

Most influential chefs/restaurants

Thomas Keller/French Laundry: 5
Joël Robuchon: 5
Ferran Adrià/El Bulli: 4
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: 3
San Domenico: 3
Eric Ripert/Le Bernardin: 3
Fergus Henderson/St John: 3
Asador Etxebarri: 3
Mugaritz: 3
Dan Barber/Blue Hill at Stone Barns: 2
Daniel Boulud: 2
Hotel Negresco: 2
Alain Passard/L'Arpege: 2

Most influential countries

France: 20
Spain: 11
Japan (including Japanese-run restaurants in U.S.): 9
Italy: 6

Most influential dishes and ingredients

Pasta: 10+
Foie gras: 7
Sushi/sashimi: 5
Fried chicken: 4
Ice cream: 4
Whole animals: 3
Tripe: 3
Tacos: 3
Burgers: 3
Pho: 2
Jamón ibérico: 2

Things that make you go hmm…

Specific mentions of inspiration from female chefs: 2 (Anita Lo and Alex Raij)
Specific mentions of dishes from culinary schools: 3

Check out the slide show for some highlights from the series.

 

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