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The First Celebrity Chefs
Bartolomeo Scappi: A Renaissance Italian author and cook (circa 1500 – 1570), his birthplace is debated, as both Italy and France play tug-of-war; but no matter his humble beginnings, Scappi had the distinction of cooking for six popes, serving up dishes in the Vatican kitchens while Michelangelo was laboriously painting the Sistine Chapel (yes, but did he serve lunch to the great painter?). Apparently popes didn’t live too long back then, and Scappi enjoyed a long career in Rome; his cookbook was published in Venice (1581) after his death, in six different installments, but rumor has it he was not very forthcoming with his secret recipes; nevertheless, judging from its lengthy contents, the popes and the Vatican staff ate very well, Michelangelo we’re not sure of.
Procopio Cutò: Italian born but French trained, he opened the first coffeehouse in Paris, in 1686; billing the popular hangout as “modern” he attracted notables from literature, politics and the art world. His grandfather pioneered the ice cream machine, and Procopio introduced world-class gelato to the Parisians; King Louise XIV was especially fond of the Italian ices in a variety of fruit flavors. Eventually, he added a few food items to accompany the coffee and desserts and thus undoubtedly created the first Starbucks, but with ice cream.
Nicolas Appert: While not a chef in the classic sense, he belongs on the list of famous foodies for his invention of preserving food; frequently considered the “Father of Canning” he spent 14 years refining his invention in the early 1800s and helped change the kitchens of the Western world. Appert hailed from France.
James Hemings: Better known as foodie president Thomas Jefferson’s chef, started life as a slave but accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where he trained as a chef and learned the language. Upon returning to palatial Monticello, he was paid as Jefferson’s personal chef and turned out most of the fabulous dinners. Since Jefferson had an enormous garden, one can only imagine the ingredients which were available to Chef Hemings. Tragically he died young after a struggle with alcoholism (all those imported French wines, one might presume).
Ruth Graves Wakefield: Owner and chef of the Toll House Inn restaurant in Massachusetts, she created the famous Toll House cookie back in the 1930s; her restaurant, well-known for home cooking and delicious desserts, was a popular destination for many Massachusetts residents and vacationers. Ruth had a background in home economics, was a perfectionist (as most chefs are) and authored a best-selling cookbook, not to mention putting herself and the Nestle Chocolate Company on the map.
Alessandro Fellippini: Head chef at Delmonico’s in NY City, considered the first fine dining establishment in America, which opened in 1827 and was famous for their signature steaks and vast wine selection. New York’s social elite, politicos, millionaires and even visiting European royalty dined there often. Named for the brothers Delmonico who owned the place, several legendary dishes were created and took center stage, among them Eggs Benedict and Lobster Newberg.
Charles Ranhofer: The Delmonico brothers spared no expense hiring fine chefs, and French born and trained Ranhofer cooked at this fine restaurant in the late 1800s; never modest, he took credit for Baked Alaska, Chicken a la King and Chateaubriand (although all three are probably not originals) and published several popular cookbooks. Adored by commoners and royalty alike, he often traveled to France to learn some new tricks, then came back to New York and served them up at Delmonico’s. He ruled the kitchen for over 30 years, hanging up his apron in 1896.
Marie-Antoine Carême: Considered by most as the founder of haute cuisine, this French chef took food to a higher level, which suited the French just fine. Starting out with rich and beautiful pastries, he graduated to fine cuisine. His talent was recognized early and attracted nobility, namely King George IV, eventually becoming the personal chef for the Rothschild family (who also considered themselves royalty). Sadly, he died at age 48 but made a huge impact on French cuisine, setting the tone for fine dining worldwide. His influence helped create one of the greatest chefs in history, Auguste Escoffier.
Born outside of Nice, France, Escoffier‘s culinary talent was recognized early by his father, who sent him to apprentice in a relative’s restaurant. By his twenties, his prowess was spreading throughout France, and he was hired by the world-class Savoy Hotel in London, where his biggest fan was the Prince of Wales. He frequently trained and hired chefs in some of Europe’s finest kitchens, and he was top dog with the Ritz Hotels. The equally immodest German Kaiser once proclaimed Escoffier as the “Emperor of Chefs”; (seems the Kaiser had a special fondness for his strawberry pudding). He owned a prized restaurant in Cannes, while performing double duty at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, attracting the rich worldwide. Remembered for his exquisite sauces as well as other dishes, including bombe Néro (don’t ask) and Peach Melba, somehow he found time to author several cookbooks and numerous articles on the fine art of cuisine. Fortunately for future generations of foodies, he lived and cooked right up until his death at the age of 88, in 1935.
No list would be complete without two marvelous American chefs who pioneered TV cooking shows in the 60s and 70s, paving the way for today’s Food Network stars: French-trained chef Julia Child and wonderfully entertaining British Graham Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet. Kerr popularized getting sloshed while cooking in full view of his live audiences, and of course who could forget Julia’s high-pitched enthusiasm for her nouveau French dishes.
Whether you’re a fine dining fan, or just a regular foodie, this list is a sample of the many artistic, adventurous and hardworking chefs who raised the bar for great eating. We applaud them posthumously as their legacies live on.
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