What does it take to elevate a cook to a chef? Some people say it requires a culinary degree. Others say it takes training, but on-the-job training suffices. Still others say the difference is that a cook has great cooking skills but a chef is in charge of not just a stove but an entire kitchen, a staff and a menu. But the definitions don't really matter when it comes to this group.
Epicurious has named the 100 Greatest Home Cooks of all time, those who perhaps have the cooking skills of a great chef but have never held the actual title. There are, of course, the celebrity cooks like Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, James Beard, Richard Olney and Julia Child. There are even few on the list whose fame has come from cooking blogs, like Laurie Colwin of A Pinch of This, and Ali Maffucci of Inspiralized.
It's not surprising that folks of this caliber end up on a list like this. But there are some surprises — the people we think of as celebrities for reasons other than their culinary skills.
Danny Kaye could make you laugh, make you want to dance, and apparently make you want to eat dinner with him. He was an "obsessive home cook," according to Epicurious. He even built a kitchen specifically for cooking Chinese food. After his death in 1987, Ruth Reichl — the famous restaurant critic, editor of Gourmet magazine and author — wrote about how she had dreaded the first time she was to dine with him because she didn't believe he could be nearly as good as he'd said he was. (He bragged "about the French chefs who said that the best restaurant in California was Danny Kaye's house.") But she found his meals to be "little symphonies — balanced, perfectly timed, totally rounded."
There doesn't seem to be filmed footage of him really cooking, but he did have a little fun with his obsession on "The Muppet Show," playing the Swedish Chef's uncle in the above video.
He was known for his horror films and his voice work on "Scooby Doo," but Vincent Price had a cooking show in the early 1970s and he also recorded an audio cooking course. Some of his audio instructions can be found online, and when he talks about carving a roast right in front of his guests, it's difficult not to get spooked when you hear that voice. He also famously showed Johnny Carson how to cook salmon in a dishwasher on the "The Tonight Show."
When writer and director Nora Ephron passed away in 2012, I wrote about her devotion to cookbooks, including Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Her final movie was "Julie and Julia," which focused heavily on Child writing the cookbook. Ephron said in an interview with food critic Jeffrey Steingarten that she would never again find anything like that movie so completely up her alley because it was everything she loved — especially the food. Cooking helped Ephron get through the tough times in her life, and she was well-known for her dinner parties. Epicurious speaks of her "rule of four," adding a fourth unexpected item to the plate in addition to the meat, potatoes and vegetable.
Actor Stanley Tucci, whose many roles include playing Julia Child's husband in "Julie and Julia" and one of the brothers in "The Big Night" about a massive feast, is a skilled cook off-screen, too. He comes from a long line of Italian cooks, and he has written two cookbooks of Italian recipes, "The Tucci Cookbook" and "The Tucci Table." He told The Splendid Table he believes the documentation of recipes is important, and the real way to preserve them is on paper.
The country singer was also a country cook. She published "Tammy Wynette's Southern Cookbook" in 1990, filled with recipes she cooked for family and friends. She even cooked on the back of her tour bus, which was equipped with an oven and a range. Once you get past the 1980s big hair and stylish-for-the-time sweaters she and Florence Henderson wore on the "Country Kitchen," you can see what an effortless cook she was, barely looking at what she was doing as she chatted about family. This was the only filmed footage of Wynette cooking that I could find; a little grainy, but worth a look.
Those were just a smattering of the famous (but not necessarily famous for cooking) names that jumped out at me, but there are so many good stories within the Epicurious list. Take a look for yourself and see what you think.