5 Famous Self-Taught Chefs

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The culinary world lost one of its innovators yesterday. Chef Charlie Trotter, 54, who opened Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s in the late 80s and helped make Chicago a great dining city, was found dead in his home. He was the recipient of the 2012 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award. His cause of death hasn’t been determined yet, but there are reports that he had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm.

One thing that’s being emphasized in all the writing I’m seeing about Trotter’s death is that he was self-taught. He didn’t attend culinary school. With the rise of the celebrity chef, culinary schools have seen a sharp increase in students. There are those who think that chefs who are self-taught, or more precisely learn by paying their dues in the kitchen, make better workers and ultimately better chefs. Whether that's true or not, there are many famous self-taught chefs who you’re either familiar with because of their celebrity status or because of the restaurants they put on the map. Here are five of them, starting with Trotter.

1. Charlie Trotter

The recently deceased chef trained in 40 restaurants before opening up Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago in 1987. The restaurant was an immediate hit, eventually gaining a 2-star Michelin rating. Trotter went on to star in PBS series “The Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter” and win many James Beard awards. He owned other restaurants during Charlie Trotter’s run, but it's the restaurant he named after himself that was his longest running and most successful. It closed last year.

2. Thomas Keller

Anyone with a restaurant bucket list probably has Napa Valley’s French Laundry on there somewhere. It’s definitely on my list. In 1994 Keller opened French Laundry, a 3-star Michelin restaurant, after years of training in kitchens in Florida, New York, and Paris. In addition to French Laundry, Keller also owns Bouchon, ad hoc, and Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley, and Per Se in New York City. Bouchon and its associated bakery also have outposts in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.

3. Tom Colicchio

“Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio taught himself to cook when he was in high school, never went to culinary school, and has five James Beard awards around his neck. He cooked in the kitchens of some of New York City’s best kitchens before opening Gramercy Tavern in 1994 (he has since sold his interest in the restaurant). He now owns NYC’s Craft, Craftbar, Colocchio & Sons, ‘wichcraft, and Riverpark, as well as several other restaurants across the country.

4. Ina Garten

Known to many as the Barefoot Contessa, Garten came to cooking later in her career. She first worked in the White House as a nuclear policy analyst. She honed her culinary skills after she bought the Barefoot Contessa store in Westhampton Beach, New York. Issues with the store’s lease caused it to close down, and Ina turned to cookbook writing, having already penned a best seller with “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” It wasn’t long before she was appearing on The Food Network and eventually was one of the early celebrity chefs to come from the TV network. While she hasn’t won the awards that some of the others on this list has, she’s inspired many home cooks, including me.

5. Jamie Oliver

The Naked Chef has a National Vocational Qualification in home economics, but no formal culinary school training. In the mid-90s he started as a pastry chef and was discovered by the BBC after making an appearance in a documentary about The River Café where he worked. It wasn’t long before the BBC gave the young cook whose enthusiasm is contagious his own show and “The Naked Chef” debuted in 1997. He owns several restaurants throughout Great Britain, has hosted over a dozen cooking shows, written seventeen cookbooks, and worked tirelessly to change the school lunch program in the U.K. In 2010 he came to the U.S. with “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” and worked with the fatest city in the country to change its residents' eating habits and health.

When I read about these chefs who didn’t attend culinary school but whose cooking and restaurants I admire, I’m inspired -- not to become a professional chef myself, but to get in my kitchen and improve my cooking skills. How about you?