Kitchen Confidants: Chefs and Friendship

From odd couples to soul mates, no one knows a chef better than another chef

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What does it mean to spend 90 percent of your waking day being a chef, neglecting home and hearth for the constant bustle of the kitchen? To endure temperatures, both literal and emotional, that could bring endurance athletes to their knees? To work in a state of such sweat-laden concentration and teeth-gritting determination that you slip into another state of mind?

No one knows, except another chef.

“There are certain people in your life who could call you up at 4 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Meet me on the corner of Avenue D and Fourth Street and bring a handgun, a stolen car, a tarpaulin and some duct tape, and you don’t ask questions—you just go,’” Anthony Bourdain said of the trust between himself and Le Bernardin chef owner Eric Ripert.

The experientially unique environment of a kitchen may explain why friendships between chefs are so fierce. Witness: the knowing glances exchanged between Momofuku Milk Bar sweets mad genius Christina Tosi and Mission Chinese spice maestro Danny Bowien when I watched them cook a dollar-store demo at Taste Talks at The Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg. These two movers and shakers could not be more different as chefs, but they guffaw over their crazed exploits like old college buddies at a 10-year reunion.

Who else would find such joy in subverting the culinary hegemony except another chef who understands how oppressive the hegemony can be? Neither Tosi nor Bowien started out poised to take over the restaurant world, and both are far cries from the New American vanguard.

Tosi met Bowien while celebrating her 30th birthday at Mission Chinese in San Francisco, during the book tour for her first cookbook, Momofuku Milk Bar. Tosi, in New York, and Bowien, then in San Francisco, savored one another’s irreverent appreciation for lowbrow culture and junk food. From coast to coast, they began slinging one another dollar-store prank gifts like Jell-o, doo-rags and hologrammed puppy placemats.

At Taste Talks, Tosi showed us how to cobble together an ice box cake from the dollar store that was super creamy (Cool Whip), sweet (grape jelly), and salty (Ritz crackers), while Bowien extolled the virtues of the pressure cooker and made us a super savory pork shoulder and dollar-store fried peanuts stew and a congee that he served to us in Tupperware containers with silver spoons.

Bowien teased Tosi about her talents chowing down on chili dogs from The Varsity, and some audience members asked how Tosi kept such a svelte frame. Bowien explained, “If you see Christina working, she like runs, she’s like in another room like all the time. You should get rollerblades. Maybe you’ll get a set of dollar store rollerblades.” The banter between Tosi and Bowien never seemed to run out.

As old school as Tosi and Bowien are new school, beloved culinary icon Jacques Pepin and his behind-the-scenes pal Jean-Claude Szurdak have been best friends for over half a century, despite their differences.

Pepin and Szurdak met when, early in their restaurant careers, Pepin asked for another cook to work under him at L’Hotel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister of France. What he got was Jean-Claude, and at first, he was none too pleased by the sight of this gawky young 20-year-old entering his kitchen, according to his account in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Pepin felt he’d “been made the butt of somebody’s joke…I’d asked for a chef. The gawky kid who slunk into the kitchen looked more like a recently drafted poet, and a starving one at that.” But the pair became fast friends as Szurdak proved himself, and remained close after their career paths brought them to America. Szurdak went on to run his own high-end catering company in New York for 20 years*; Pepin eventually became an internationally-recognized cooking personality through his cookbooks and television shows.

“Before we were married, before children, before accidents, before everything, we were already together, cooking in the same way,” Jacques told FoodandWine.com. “We are forged from the same material.”

The two old friends have skied together since their 20s and have even faced one another on the culinary battlefield at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Despite their similarities of French nationality, nearly identical age (Pepin is one year older) and profession, Pepin and Szurdak are reputed to be as different as their skiing styles—Szurdak slow and steady, Pepin quick and headstrong. FoodandWine.com reported that the pair spend as much time as possible together, ignoring Pepin’s wife and cloistering themselves like monks, talking late into the night.

“When Jean-Claude is around, I know I can go to bed early. Jacques and Jean-Claude will stay up all night talking. They talk about everything, profound things, things Jacques wouldn’t even talk to me about. Religion, women, food, everything,” Pepin’s wife Gloria told FoodandWine.com.

The compatriots, both about to turn 80, still seem to have miles to go, with no sign of their gas tanks running on empty. Together, they frequently cook for cruises, star at food festivals and host special culinary nights.

Pepin, as the executive culinary director of Oceania’s three luxury cruise ships, frequently brings Szurdak on board to cook with him. Together, they created the meals, lectures and cooking demonstrations on a special Insignia cruise from Copenhagen to Lisbon in 2010, wandering the markets at stops to select the produce for meals. During a stop at Bordeaux’s Marché des Capucins, they spent their time poring over peaches for their guests’ dessert of white peaches, Reine Claude plums, and champagne sorbet, selecting just the right radishes to top a simple buttered baguette, and capturing the mussels and sardines for their magnificent mains.

Pepin also teaches at Boston University’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts, and where Pepin goes, Szurdak goes. “It is a hands-on program, the students work very hard,” Pepin said on Facebook. “I have been teaching this for many years, and Jean-Claude often helps me.” In 2008, the best friends co-hosted “Same Ingredients, Different Meal” at the university, wherein they were given identical ingredients, but ended up with completely different meals. In 2011, Pepin and Szurdak co-hosted a very special nostalgic event at Boston University entitled “Remembrance of Things Past,” recreating Pepin’s family culinary history with a menu from Pepin’s parents’ restaurants, Le Pelican, where he worked as a teenager.

And then of course there is Pepin’s PBS show, Essential Pepin, where Szurdak often guests on the show, trading wit for wit with Pepin, but also works behind the scenes prepping dishes and making duplicates of them for filming.

Another odd-yet-perfect coupling finds itself in elegant Buddhist seafood maestro Eric Ripert and once-nihilist aging punker Tony Bourdain, who are constantly engaging in joint globetrotting omakases and a realization that Zen and punk aren’t so different.

At first glance, Ripert and Bourdain could not be more binary. Ripert travels to South Korea to learn about ancient seafood techniques from Buddhist monks in silent monasteries; Bourdain loves to lounge poolside at a luxury hotel eating until he bursts. Ripert’s work at Le Bernardin is as meditative as his religious beliefs, from slices of wabi-sabi tuna that could have been dropped by gossamer fairy wings, to graceful strokes of colorfully adapted mother sauces. Bourdain’s style of cooking at Les Halles was as brash as his words, with aggressive cuts of beef and pork aplenty (don’t forget to lavish foie gras on top) and traditional French brasserie preparations in American portion sizes.

The two became friends after Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential was published, when Ripert called Bourdain and asked him to come have lunch with him at Le Bernardin. “He’s a very smart man who has a very sharp mind. He’s a loyal friend and very generous. We’re very different in our way of thinking—our relationship is kind of like “The Odd Couple,” Ripert said to Today.com. “We have tremendous respect for each other, and though it’s a sort of an absurd relationship, it works.”

In 2012, the savvy pair took advantage of their coupled media status to launch a nationwide culinary storytelling tour called “Good Vs. Evil,” the tagline proclaiming, “Two chefs. Two unlikely friends. Two very different careers and philosophies sharing one stage.” From Las Vegas to Providence, the duo traipsed about talking about what it’s like to work in the heat of the kitchen, Bourdain teasing and provoking, Ripert rallying and laughing it off. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Bourdain dramatically sat Ripert down on a folding chair as an interrogation light shone on him. “Your comfort is not a priority tonight, Mr Ripert,” Tony says as he grills him with question after question about his perfectionistic cooking.

“You know, Michael Corleone got it completely wrong,” Bourdain said from Charlotte’s Belk Theatre. “All business is personal. Eric calls up and says, ‘Let’s play,’ I play.”

On an episode of On the Table with Eric Ripert the two make octopus in red wine with clams while discussing sex, drugs, rock and roll, and dysfunction.

“He’s my best friend,” Ripert said in an outtake at the end of the episode. “I think the fact that he’s traveled so much has given him a different perspective of life and he thinks differently than he was thinking 20 years ago. He’s a different man.”
There is no doubt that the forthcoming food hall Bourdain Market will feature unapologetic meat aplenty, most likely in much larger portions than seafood. But will Ripert come to visit Bourdain Market? Without a doubt, if only just to see how many people are buying the chocolate bar the pair developed together, called Good & Evil. The bar reflects Ripert, who, according to the press release, sees “the “good” in food,” and Bourdain, “who embraces the “evil” of the dark cocoa nibs.” How could the adoring food republic not be charmed by this enterprise, however gimmicky?

It’s obvious that these two take great joy in one another’s friendship, and have learned from one another. Calm, pleasant Ripert even managed to convince the legendarily crusty, cranky Bourdain to “summer” (imagine Bourdain using that as a verb) in the Hamptons with him, where they barbecued together.

At the bone, Ripert and Bourdain share the chef’s joy in hedonism, discovery and ambition, and while expressed in polar opposites, the two meet in their zest for life and food. On Bourdain’s Travel Channel show No Reservations, Bourdain and Ripert travel to France together for its 100th episode, and on Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, they jet to Peru together to see the chocolate farm for their Good and Evil bar and sample chef Javier Wong’s ceviche and the spicy Chinese-influenced cuisine.

And then there is the friendship of mutual growth, one where your meteoric rise has so much in common with your fellow chefpreneur that the food demi-monde cannot help but link your names.

Last year, New York food critic Adam Platt thanked Brit gastropub chef April Bloomfield and Korean-American modernist David Chang for a decade of changing the way New York, and America, eat. Though their absence in the New York dining scene is unfathomable now, 11 years ago they were, as Platt said, just two chefs opening a “Noodle Bar” and a “snug, unassuming little pub.” Once outsiders, the pair have ascended to a Mount Olympus of New York chefs.

Bloomfield and Chang worship the pig together and uniquely understand one another’s point of view about where modern dining is heading. Both chefs pack a punch of emotional comfort and caloric value in their menus, appealing to the New York diner’s wallet that hasn’t yet recovered from the recession’s ripples. Together, these two friends have evolved and grown as chefpreneurs, each hosting a season on the same show, Mind of a Chef, spawning outposts of their empires on opposite coasts, judging cooking competitions together, and pioneering whole trotter-and-offal feasts together.

Tough, sardonic Stephanie Cmar and quietly confident Kristen Kish steadfastly supported one another through the travails of Top Chef and emerged successful and unscathed. The two initially met at Top of the Hub and became good friends while working at Stir in Boston, and both competed on Season 10. Cmar was knocked out in the first episode, but was the only non-family member in Kish’s cheering section during the nerve-wracking live finale of Top Chef Season 10.

Cmar told Boston.com that when she was preparing to compete on Top Chef: New Orleans, Kish advised her “to just focus on doing my best and not worry about winning the challenges. After the judges come around, that’s when you can start thinking about winning.” This time, Cmar made it much further, to Episode 10, where the fatal beignet bested her two episodes before the final episode. She credits Kish with arming her with more confidence to compete.

For chefs, these friendships often surpass other relationships—whether fellow kitchen serf or chefpreneur, they can find comfort and understanding in one another that they can’t find anywhere else.

“We both have these dysfunctional, really busy lives where we don’t have a lot of time to do presumably normal things,” Bourdain said on the YouTube show On The Table With Eric Ripert. “Eric’s someone who I don’t have to explain to; his life is nearly as fucked up as mine.” In the context of these kindred friendships, the fast-paced, hectic life of a chef can attain deeper meaning and even a semblance of normalcy and stability.

*Correction: Szurdak owned his own catering company; Pepin was not involved in the business, as we previously stated. We regret the error.

Dakota Kim is a food writer, gardener, mushroom hunter and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. She likes to brew strange Korean medicinal teas and bake vegan desserts. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring burlesque performers called Bombshell Baker. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.

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