Good eats come from good chefs, and since 1991, the James Beard Foundation has recognized the most creative culinary talents in the U.S. with an annual award that has become, as TIME dubbed them at the time, the “Oscars of the food world.” Each year, the prestige of the Outstanding Chef title grows, and brings rock star status to the previously unsung heroes of the kitchen. As something to aspire to, the awards have also served as a gastronomic stimulus package, fueling innovation and unforgettable concoctions that have gone a long way toward upgrading the American palate (thanks, Wolfgang Puck, for forever changing airport pizza). On the James Beard Foundation’s 25th anniversary, we spoke to 23 Outstanding Chef honorees about what the award has meant to them, what they would request as their last meal, and even what they eat when nobody is looking. You might be surprised by some of their answers.
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