Blaine Wetzel, the immensely talented chef at Lummi Island's Willows Inn, is 25 years old. Adoring food writers--a group to which I gained entry with this week's review--agree he's very young by kitchen standards. But just what is the peak age for a chef?
In baseball, the belief that hitters are at their best at age 27 is so prevalent that some fantasy players build their teams around birthdates. By 30, most professional football players have retired. And athletics isn't the only field dominated by the under-30 set: Mathematicians are fixated on doing great work in their 20s, certain their mental acuity will falter as they age. Research shows mathematicians, chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists, on average, make their most significant contributions to science before turning 40.
There is no similar folklore surrounding chef's ages. Most culinary insiders can cite examples of groundbreaking prodigies--such as Sean Brock, who at 28 became one of the first modern chefs to raise and slaughter his own hogs--and working chefs who started their careers during World War II. In the past four years, the James Beard Foundation has awarded its prestigious Outstanding Chef award to chefs 42, 48, 40, and 34 years old.
Complicating the discussion is the contested definition of chefdom. There's clear consensus that if a shortstop becomes a third-base coach, he's no longer playing baseball. Chefs, though, often abandon the grueling job of working on the line without giving up the title of chef. Many big-name chefs spend more time in television studios and conference rooms than they spend over a stove, which allows them to extend their tenure in a physically demanding profession.
Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation, doesn't believe a chef who can't handle an eight-hour shift in a hot kitchen has necessarily passed his or her prime. "We see chefs more in an artistic vein," she says. "If you consider a chef as an artist, the idea of age becomes more fluid."
While many of the current cookery trends, which require chefs to forage for berries and experiment with strange chemicals, seem more suited for the young, Wojcik thinks older chefs might be better situated for achievement. "If you were to make a generalization, maybe age even adds to it," she says. While stamina and agility may erode with time, older chefs have "experience and a wealth of knowledge," she says.
Although Wojcik can't pinpoint an age at which imagination and expertise mutually crest for most chefs, she suspects it generally happens after the age of 30. The James Beard Foundation annually awards a "Rising Star" award to a promising chef under 30. The prize implicitly acknowledges the inevitably of evolution and growth. "We're looking out for young but already accomplished chefs," Wojcik says. "We include chefs who may not have achieved all they are going to achieve."
Wetzel was a semi-finalist for the award this year, but didn't make the nominee list. Unlike ballerinas and baseball players, though, he has no reason to worry: He still has five more chances for his star to rise.