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Tanya Steel is a well-known food writer and Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning food Web site, Before joining Epicurious, Steel was the New York Editor of Bon Appetit magazine, where[…]

Passion first.

Question: What makes a great chef?

Tanya Steel: I think a great chef is someone who first of all has a tremendous love of food. There are a lot of chefs out there who are in this business because they want to be on television. They want to be millionaires.

They think, “Hey, that guy can do it. So can I.” And then there are a lot of chefs out there who see food as an intellectual exercise. For me what makes a great chef is for someone who really loves to eat. So I love talking to chefs and hearing them describe a dish that they’ve made, because as they describe it you can see if they really, really love it. And if they don’t and it’s more kind of, “I paired this with this because I thought it would be really cool – this texture that with that flavor,” it becomes more of an intellectual exercise. Then for me that’s not the same.

I feel like that chef is not really kind of getting it and someone I trust completely. So I think what makes a really great chef is someone who has a tremendous passion for food – someone like Mario Batali. You can tell that guy, he loves to eat. You can tell looking at him. I love you Mario, but you know I can tell you love to eat. And just listening to him describe a cheese, you know or duck fat, you know Lardo is so kind of transcendent. You just get lost with him in those fields in Italy. So a passion is really what I always look for when I’m talking to chefs.

It’s interesting what’s going on with the evolution of chefs and their training. In the ‘80s it was tremendous that you . . . that those chefs went to the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales. Now chefs have to have kind of stodged around the world. They . . . It’s not enough that they went to the best schools in America. They now need to have trained not just in France, but in Ireland, in Australia, and in Japan, and then . . . and make pilgrimages to Thailand and to all of these interesting cultural places where the cuisine is completely different from anything that they’ve ever experienced before. So that is very interesting because they’re becoming more educated than they ever have before. Chefs are by far more sophisticated and educated than they’ve ever been in the history of cooking really. So that is fantastic for us because we are really--What’s the word? Benefiting. We are really benefiting from their sophistication, and their education, and their experience.

 January 17, 2008