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.