What makes a Chef great? Is the calibre of a great chef measured by the technical prowess they possess? Or, is it something else entirely?

“To be great you must work with the greats” is something all too often told to young people striving for a career in just about any industry in the world; and in kitchens around the world it is universally acknowledged that working with the world’s best is a near sure-fire way of making it into the big leagues. Presuming, of course, you can stomach the pressure and pace.

I believe that there is much more to that phrase than the simple passing on of technical skills at the avant-garde level to hopeful, knowledge-hungry new cooks, looking to progress above their mentors. The most crucial aspects can be taught by chefs at all levels of skill. Cooking, much like all arts and crafts professions, is a labour of love. However, let’s put aside the tale that dictates that if you “cook with love your food will automatically taste better,” for a moment and let’s dive into it a little deeper.
There are many things to love about cooking as a career. Some people strive to cook at the highest technical level possible; merging science into everyday cooking in their restaurants, distilling wet soil scents with chefs like Jordi Roca to develop mind-boggling desserts. Some are driven instead by the wild side of the industry and strive to work for people like Marco Pierre White (or well, used to back when he was at the helm of Harvey’s.) And some are driven by the thirst of exploration in finding new ingredients that are unknown to modern society. They migrate to Brazil to work with chefs like Alex Atala to discover indigenous Amazonian foods and explore the unknown.

But, what about the majority of cooks in the industry? The other 99% – are we to assume that unless they work with some of those world-renowned chefs, they are never going to make a name for themselves?

I would argue, then, that the greatest traits any chef can pass onto their cooks are not that of technical abilities, but instead, boil down to a couple of things.

One – the love for sharing knowledge with people; to not only strive to improve their own technique, but to share these talents and discoveries with the people around them in the hopes of enhancing their own abilities, while simultaneously learning from them. Take René Redzepi and David Zilber’s book “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” as an example, a book composed for the sole purpose of sharing their discoveries, successes and failures after years of R&D into the world of fermentation of Nordic cuisine. They aim to teach the masses – both home cooks and professionals alike – about the techniques they’ve developed so that people may build upon them in their own cuisines around the world, and further the pool of knowledge in this culinary field.

Two – the love for cooking as a way to enhance someone else’s life. To cook not only for oneself as a way to flex technical ability, but to instead learn to love the act of feeding someone at a fundamental level and understand the impact that food can have on people. To see the joy that one can bring to a person’s life through food is both extremely rewarding while also a very humbling experience. Food is as much a joy as it is a necessity, and while many of us may be serving expensive plates of food to well-off people, there are millions of people who live off food shelters around the world. One could argue that chefs have the greatest ability of all to bring happiness to these people’s lives on a daily basis.

To me, then, the greatest chefs are not those who strive purely for Michelin stars. But instead, they are chefs around the world who devote themselves to their craft at a fundamentally humanitarian level. And these attributes can be found in just about any corner of the world, not just the World 50 Best.