What makes a great chef truly great?
They share the same personality traits. While we may disagree on which traits make chefs great, the core ones include: organization, authenticity, creativity, a love of learning, stamina, being a team player, attention to detail, and a love for cooking.
Odds are good that as a professional chef, you possess many of these traits yourself. But, what sets apart Jamie Oliver, Ina Garten, Masaharu Morimoto, Gordon Ramsay, or Emeril Lagasse from other chefs? How do you make the transition from the back of house to front-and-center stage? To be a true chef thought leader, you can stand out from the crowd with a unique blend of authenticity, creativity, drive, and networking.
Chef thought leader trait 1: Authenticity
One of the earliest and most iconic celebrity chefs of all time, Julia Child, stood out quite literally at 6’2” tall with her signature mop of curly red hair. She also broke the barriers of what society expected out of women and their careers. It was embracing her quirks that garnered her attention and acclaim as she made Le Cordon Bleu cooking accessible for the U.S. audience.
With quotes like, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook,” and “I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food,” Julia’s unabashed authenticity was irresistible to her fans. One quote sums up her mentality perfectly: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
Chef thought leader trait 2: Creativity
We mention it as a key trait earlier, but chef thought leaders take creativity to a whole new level. 27-year-old Amaury Guichon is known for his killer smile and astonishing pastry skills, which he cultivated in Paris’s top establishments beginning at age 16. He now exerts a “planetary influence” on the international pastry scene by emphasizing “surprise and originality in his work.” Technical skills notwithstanding, it’s his boundary-pushing, creative architectural sugar masterpieces that have earned him “Pastry Magician” viral Instagram status and a job at Aria Jean Philippe Patisserie in Las Vegas.
Amaury says in So Good Magazine, “I try to create things that have not been done before. I also like to trick the mind by creating things that look like day-to-day objects, such as a watch, an egg, a compass.”
Chef thought leader trait 3: Drive
Whatever you may think of the food served at his 17 restaurants, Guy Fieri clearly had the drive to distinguish himself as a celebrity chef personality: it’s even part of the title of his hit Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. He’s probably stopped at your nearest city to sample the greasy-spoon fare that’s most popular with locals. It can be exhausting being out on the road, trying to charm strangers and meet studio deadlines at the same time. Drive is what inspires you to constantly step beyond your comfort zone when it’s a lot easier to stay within the familiar.
Anthony Bourdain has traveled even further distances in his Travel Channel smash hit No Reservations—from the Italian countryside, to Southeast Asia, to even the Congo. The 61-year-old “bad boy” chef is known for being fearless in both his adventures and his tastings (including bugs and rodents), but staying grounded and humble keeps him motivated. He is quoted as saying, “If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it’s the restaurant business.”
Chef thought leader trait 4: Networking
It’s all about who you know. That’s certainly true when becoming a chef thought leader. Food Network icon Alton Brown was a film student at the University of Georgia and didn’t even touch cooking until his early 30’s when he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute because he was dissatisfied with the quality of cooking shows on American television. Good Eats debuted on a Chicago PBS television station in 1998 and was picked up by the Food Network a year later. He later used his TV industry connections to successfully bring the Japanese sensation Iron Chef to America, which he hosted and commentated.
Brown mentored up-and-coming chef contestants on The Next Food Network Star alongside Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay, in addition to spearheading several other shows and appearances in countless cameos and commercials. Clearly, a lifelong passion for cooking isn’t a prerequisite to becoming a chef thought leader; being able to charm people with a witty personality and leveraging connections to make things happen is a powerful combination. Brown also knows how to aggregate diverse viewpoints, saying “I think in the end there are only 20 or 30 tenets of basic cooking. It’s going at perhaps the same issue from different angles, from different points of view, from different presentation styles, that really makes things sink in and become embedded.”
It will be up to you to cultivate your own signature flavor, but emphasizing your authenticity, expanding your creativity, maintaining strong drive, and networking successfully is what can take you from being another face in the crowd to a stand-out star and thought leader in the professional chef community.