Chefs, especially the better ones, don’t usually pass judgment on one another publicly. So we were shocked recently when we heard one successful chef blasting another one for having handled a fish with tongs. "I wouldn't even stand in the same kitchen if I saw that!" he thundered. The first one was classically trained; the second, self-taught. It just went to show that if there’s anything that divides the world of chefs, it’s how they learned to cook — and how invested they are in the way that they came up. We staged a cage match between one of the city’s proud grads and a couple eminent autodidacts in order to find out who has it right.
For Dennis Foy, one of the city’s most successful self-taught chefs, the best part of being unschooled is that “there are no rules. Yes, first and foremost you have to follow technique to be a cook. But not having been taught in a classroom can free you up. You trust your instincts more, and you are less afraid of making mistakes.” Individual expression is the name of the game. Michael Psilakis, whose Kefi just won four stars from the Underground Gourmet, says his path freed him too. “Most schooled cooks I’ve known have been influenced directly by those who have schooled them. The result is a reflection of someone else’s vision.” (Oh, burn!)
Classically trained chefs ain’t having that. We talked to Adam Perry Lang, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who trained under Daniel Boulud. “Anybody who argues that [the training] is dated or not necessary is completely ignorant while denying the very shoulders they sit on, directly or indirectly,” he told us. “Anyone who is denying that point should chop some more onions.” Harsh words, Mr. Lang! The bottom line is that the trained chefs make the rules these days, for better or worse. “To be honest, I’m not even sure it’s possible to be a self-taught chef anymore,” says Foy, regretfully. “Despite being proud of my culinary education — and having complete confidence in what I do — I would not hire someone for my restaurant who hadn’t attended culinary school.” After all, he might flip a fish with tongs.