In The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best: A 25th Anniversary Celebration of America’s Outstanding Chefs (Chronicle, March) Kit Wohl writes about each of the 21 chefs who have won the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award between 1991, when the award began, and 2010.
You’re a painter, sculptor, photographer, and writer and have published seven cookbooks of your own. What made you want to do a book for the James Beard Foundation’s 25th anniversary?
I just have a lot of varied interests, and I think that’s healthy. This book was a labor of love. I have so many friends who are chefs, and I’ve always wondered about the JBF Award. It always seemed to me that the chefs deserve more than accolades and a medallion on the wall. So I sat down with Susan Ungaro, president of the Beard Foundation, and brainstormed about a more permanent way of honoring the chefs who’ve been selected over the years.
The book has essays about each chef and recipes and is organized around each award-winning chef. But how did you decide what to include?
It’s basically a foodie’s pilgrimage to the best chefs and the best meals. These chefs are all pretty busy people. They revere the Beard Foundation, and that opened a big door for me. We asked them to choose the recipes that best represent their work. We had to cut a decent amount of recipes. We’re posting them every week on the JBF blog as appetizers for the book.
What was it like to meet so many established chefs?
I had so much fun. These chefs are each at the top of their game. They’re tremendously talented, focused people, and that’s the one thing they have in common. I had a wonderful time with Judy Rodgers. She’s a down-to-earth woman. You’d expect her to arrive in a limousine; she came in carrying a mop and things from the hardware store. I’ve known Wolfgang Puck [the only chef to win twice] for years. I met him not long after he opened Spago in the ‘80s and came to New Orleans to do an event for a client. I saw him starting out and now to see him at the pinnacle of his career is exciting. I knew Thomas Keller’s food from Rakel in Greenwich Village. When he opened the French Laundry, we made a special trip there.
What were some of your favorite moments interviewing the chefs?
Keller on his hands and knees wiping up footprints from the garden. It underscored his abiding drive to perfection. Or Michel Richard flicking bread balls at me and dashing off drawings at his kitchen table in Citronelle. He is as playful as his food.
How did you become interested in cooking?
My mother was an appallingly bad cook. She was married during World War II and discovered cans and boxes. My mother made green beans with canned fried onions and tuna with cream of mushroom soup. I was the oldest of six, and I started cooking at a very young age in self-defense. The very first cookbook I ever used was The Girl Scout Cookbook; I made egg salad. I had happy brothers and sisters.