You don’t have to turn on The Cooking Channel to know that chefs are the coolest kids on the block. Names like Alice Waters, Bobby Flay, and Daniel Boulud trend on an evergreen basis while shows like The Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table turn the stories of culinary creators into epic documentaries.
This superstar status was not always the case, however. In his new book, Chefs, Drugs and Rock and Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, author Andrew Friedman discusses the fiery evolution of the culinary industry from bottom of the barrel to one of the top college majors in 2018. According to Niche, culinary arts and food service studies surpasses mathematics, film and photography, and legal studies. In his talk at the Culinary Institute of America on April 11, Friedman revealed why the rock and roll generation of the 70s and 80s was the turning point for food professionals in the United States. He joined CIA chefs Dr. Tim Ryan, Waldy Malouf, and Brendan Walsh, along with New York City chef Diane Forley and Myriad Restaurant Group owner Drew Nieporent to share the exciting, tumultuous progress that paved the way for the modern era of restaurateurs.
“The story of this profession in the United States, which I think really flowered in the 1980s, is that pre-1970s it was almost unheard of that an American kid from a ‘good home’ would turn to their parents and say, ‘hey mom and dad, I want to be a cook,’” Friedman says.
Andrew Friedman discusses his new book.
In the book, he recounts the life-changing journeys of young chefs in Los Angeles and New York City during the rock and roll era as they broke the mold and pursued their culinary dreams. As each panelist exemplified, the road to success was by no means a walk in the park.
Take Waldy Malouf, for instance. The current Culinary Institute of America professor thought he was destined to follow in the footsteps of his lawyer father and college professor mother. Instead, he fell in love with the Culinary Institute of America during a visit with a friend. He enrolled, and dealt with the consequences later.
“My father disowned me. My mother snuck me money for tuition,” he recalls. He made it through his school years and found himself employed at the Four Seasons in New York, where James Beard worked on the menu.
Malouf’s experience was not an unusual one. Diane Forley underwent a similar trial as she entered the culinary sphere.
“I got the (Culinary Institute of America) catalog, but I didn’t show it to anybody. That was not an option for me,” she says. She went to undergrad at Brown University, but was unable to resist the lure of the food scene. To get her toes wet, she worked in a restaurant where she was one of the only women in the kitchen.
“It was all hims,” jokes Michael Colameco.
Although the gender disparity Forley faced in the kitchen was an undeniable reality in New York, it was much less of an issue on the west coast.
“We had 50 percent female, 50 percent male,” says Brendan Walsh of his kitchen near the Pacific Ocean. Although Walsh is a self-proclaimed “Bronx boy,” he migrated to the Los Angeles area to gain a better appreciation for his ingredients. “My journey to the west coast was about being closer to the source of the food,” he says.
Drew Nieporent at the Culinary Institute of America panel.
During the talk, Walsh, Malouf, and Drew Nieporent all highlighted the differences in cuisine on the dueling coasts. Unlike in the west, where creativity reigned and fresh, local ingredients abounded, the east adhered to haute French fare with minimal alterations.
“In the late 70s and early 80s you worked at French restaurants,” Malouf explains. French kitchens were the place to be if you wanted to be a chef. So it was quite a big deal when Americana dining crept onto menus across the nation.
“I wanted to open an American restaurant,” Nieporent declares. As the only chef on the panel who had a family background in the food industry (his father was a lawyer who worked with liquor licenses), Nieporent had a seemingly straightforward path to chefdom. He went to Cornell for college and worked day in and day out as a cook on a cruise ship. Yet when it came time to carve a niche for himself in New York City, he juggled between working in French restaurants and starting an American eatery of his own. He got his big break when he opened Montrachet and earned a three star from New York Times food critic (and Hudson Valley Magazine writer) Bryan Miller a mere seven weeks after opening.
“It changed my life,” he says. Nieporent may have been talking about his own experience, but his words hit home for all of the chefs on the panel. A little out-of-the-box thinking and one big break is all it takes.