Once considered a lowly trade, being a chef these days is anything but. The most successful chefs have emerged from the kitchen to write books, star in their own TV shows, grace the pages of magazines, and jet around the world to cook with other famous chefs. But at the end of the day, how do you tell if a chef is truly great? No matter the media fame, the proof in the pudding lies in what they put on the plate. It’s still the food that matters.
Here’s my best attempt at a list of 12 international chefs cooking today who have proven their worth in the kitchen. I’ve prioritized chefs with a global presence as well as establishment cred—think Michelin stars, a World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking, and as an added bonus, a Chef’s Table documentary to their names. You may notice that there is only one woman chef on the list, an unfortunate detail that reflects the fact that it’s still the men who dominate at the higher echelons. But more and more talented women are heading their own restaurants, and I’m optimistic that in just a few years, a list of this kind will see more women on board.
With that in mind, here, in alphabetical order, is my more-or-less definitive list of 12 chefs whose food you should definitely make it a point to try:
1. Grant Achatz
He may have earned his reputation as a disciple of molecular gastronomy at Alinea, his three Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, but his food is so much more than that as he plays with memory and nostalgia to evoke emotions in surprising ways. Case in point, one of his most iconic dishes is an edible helium balloon made with green apple taffy. His other restaurant Next, also based in Chicago, is even more experimental with a menu that completely changes every four months.
2. Elena Arzak
Named World’s Best Female Chef in 2012, the lone woman on this list heads the legendary Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain, taking over from her equally legendary father Juan Mari Arzak. Since then, she has steered this three-star Michelin restaurant to new heights, with her avant garde Basque creations. Snag a reservation for the multi-course tasting menu or à la carte menu at this restaurant ranked No. 31 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
3. Massimo Bottura
Thanks to the reputation of his Osteria Francescana situated in Modena, Italy, Bottura’s name elicits awe even by those who have never tried his food. Credit may go to his star turn on Chef’s Table on Netflix, and his recent reclaiming of the No. 1 spot on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but it’s his masterful reimagining of Italian food that truly inspires. If you manage to get a reservation, just hope his iconic dish called Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano is still on the menu.
4. David Chang
This brash Korean-American chef speaks his mind and swears incessantly (see The Mind of a Chef and Ugly Delicious on Netflix). Chang is an iconoclast, having instigated a radical change in fine dining as his Momofuku restaurants stripped away the trappings of service and décor to focus on a multicultural take on American cuisine. With restaurants in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco, Sydney, and Toronto, the Momofuku brand is growing. But if you have to visit just one restaurant, make it the two Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko in Manhattan, currently taking the NY food world by storm with its latest off-the-wall creation—quadruple-fried chicken drumstick served cold.
5. André Chiang
This year’s recipient of the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award, Chiang is at a crossroads, having recently closed Restaurant André which redefined fine dining in Singapore with its Asian-inflected modern French approach, reaching No. 2 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and No. 14 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants. He moved back to his native Taiwan to rediscover his Taiwanese roots through Raw (No. 24 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants) in Taipei, as well as work on new concepts. The food world is waiting to see what he comes up with next.
6. Alain Ducasse
With 30-plus restaurants to his name scattered around the world, and a handy collection of Michelin stars in the bag, Ducasse is at the pinnacle of the culinary world. Among his most acclaimed restaurants are Le Louis XV in Monaco and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris, both touting three Michelin stars. While classically trained, he remains modern and relevant, leaning towards healthier, sustainable fare, as exemplified by his iconic cookpot, in which he simmers seven locally-sourced vegetables to create what he calls “a harmony of flavors.”
7. Anand Gaggan
It’s no contest that Asia’s most celebrated chef is Anand Gaggan, the Indian-born chef who has made Bangkok his home with Gaggan, voted No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the past four years, and listed as No. 5 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Gaggan uses his unbridled creativity and humor to create playful 25-course tasting menus that riff on his memories of Indian street food, and written entirely with emojis. You can catch a whiff of his outsize personality on Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
8. Daniel Humm
The chef behind Manhattan’s most acclaimed restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, the Swiss-born Humm brings a minimalist European elegance to the table with such meticulous dishes as honey and lavender roast duck and sturgeon caviar “cheesecake.” With three Michelin stars and a No. 4 ranking on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants (it was No. 1 in 2017), Humm has since opened restaurants for the NoMad Hotel group, as well as the more casual Made Nice in NYC.
9. Virgilio Martinez
He is one of a handful of Peruvian chefs who have put this South American country on the culinary map. By championing local and indigenous ingredients in forward-thinking ways, Martinez has made his restaurant Central the main reason for food lovers to book a flight to Lima. In the process, it is currently ranked an impressive No. 6 among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, beating out the usual European and North American contenders. He has since opened Lima in London, and soon to open Ichu Peru in Hong Kong, in his bid for global domination, by a Peruvian no less.
10. Enrique Olvera
Under his masterful hand, classic Mexican flavors get reinterpreted into dishes of pure genius at Pujol in Mexico City, currently ranked No. 13 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. One of them is Mole Madre, Mole Nuevo, where he creates a spice-laden traditional sauce aged for a staggering 1,500 days. He has gotten just as much raves when he opened Cosme in New York City, at No. 25 on the same list, followed by the more casual Atla, also in New York, proving that Mexican fare has gone way beyond street tacos and burritos.
11. René Redzepi
Based in Copenhagen, he is a culinary game changer who brings a hyper-intense focus on local produce to the plate, and reimagines Nordic cuisine in the process. He recently reopened Noma (ranked No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014) now at a different location and with a radical new approach. Reservations are prepaid, and menus follow a strictly seasonal schedule, divided into seafood, vegetable, or game and forest depending on the time of the year. A fascinating glimpse into who is arguably the world’s most influential chef of the 21st century is provided by the late Anthony Bourdain on his CNN show, Parts Unknown.
12. Joan Roca
He is one among three brothers who run El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, boasting three Michelin stars and a No. 2 ranking on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (it was No. 1 in 2013 and 2015). While brother Josep takes care of the wines, and youngest Jordi (also considered among the world’s greatest chefs) handles the pastry, Joan lords it over the kitchen to come out with exquisitely crafted dishes known for their playfulness and innovation. Snagging a reservation is near impossible, but if you do, you won’t regret the multi-course tasting menu with such notable dishes as freeze-dried oyster shell with oyster tartare.
Illustration by Gica Tam