Jacob Nemmers, preparing a dish at Manhattan’s Atera

One of the hottest tickets in the cuisine capital of New York is a reservation to a top restaurant, those where the chef decides what he will serve during your four-hour feast.  One such restaurant is Atera in downtown Manhattan, where executive chef Matthew Lightner and his large crew cook up a 20-plus course tasting menu, from razor clams served in a squid-ink tinted baguette to beet ember served on trout roe. Once diners are seated at 6 p.m., they patiently wait to experience what is in store, while one of the chefs, Jacob Nemmers, quietly and with the utmost precision, prepares the delicate dishes right before them as they watch from leather-cushioned bar stools at a semicircle gray counter. It takes weeks to get a reservation but saving up for the $165-per-person bill (before tax and wine) may take even longer. But this is not simply a dinner out. This is theater.

In the restaurant business, there are cooks, and there are chefs: do not confuse the two. Cooks are not known by name – they are producers of the plates you eat at your local haunt. Chefs, however, can be glorified and revered in contemporary culture. In food-obsessed New York City, where there are more than 4,200 restaurants, cooks abound. But it is the relatively few chefs so well known for their consistent innovation and overwhelming dedication–and ability to open highly successful restaurants –that are elevated to a status of celebrity. Nemmers, a former chef at Atera, distinguishes between the two as “a difference in mentality.” “Cooks do their individual tasks, while chefs are thinking about the big picture and how the meal comes together as a whole,” said Nemmers in an interview.

Perhaps credit Danny Meyer, Thomas Keller, or Daniel Boulud with starting the current trend of the celebrity chef in New York. Customers and critics alike now pay special attention to those creating the fine dining experience. The list of famous culinary artists continues to grow.  Shuffling around third base are dozens of hopefuls like Nemmers, who is opening what is likely to become a top restaurant in New York City with partners on May 4.

But how does a chef become a celebrity chef? In an interview with William Grimes, “New York Times” journalist, restaurant critic, and author of “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” he discussed the origins. “The trend has been with us ever since the stars of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s changed the old rules about the role of a chef,” says Grimes. “Traditionally, chefs were anonymous…[but] they could now capitalize on their reputations and create dining empires.”

This trend started to inspire young chefs across the nation. In the case of Nemmers, 25, he went from a “food desert” in Lamont, Iowa to working in acclaimed kitchens throughout America. “I was born and raised in Casserole Nation. Everything was seasoned with cream of mushroom, cream of celery, and bouillon cubes. No salt, no pepper,” says Nemmers. “There was no dining scene – we would go to buffets for family dinners out.”

A soccer player, he loved hanging out in his mom’s kitchen, helping cook for  his large family. During his senior year of high school in 2004, he told his parents about his big aspirations to become a chef, but it did not go so well. “It was a total no-go with my parents.  They thought I would end up working at Applebee’s,” says Nemmers, chuckling a little.

But after two years and eight credits at the University of Iowa, he told his parents it was not going to work out. Within the month he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Minneapolis. After that he was off and cooking: first with award-winning chef Tim McKee at his Italian restaurant in Minneapolis, La Belle Vie, and then onto illustrious restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and the aforementioned Atera. Now he is poised to take the next big step with Omar, a fine dining restaurant opening in the West Village. The restaurant, though sharing its New American-style of cooking with Atera, will be decidedly different. “We’re trying to recreate what it’s like at an Italian grandma’s house,” says Nemmers. “It’s like family-style; we want them to trust us like family to cook them what we know they would like.”

Nemmers has not yet joined the rarified ranks of celeb chefs. They are the legendary ones in the restaurant business: Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentiis, David Chang. Consider Julia Child, the first American chef credited with celebrity standing.

Child attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris after falling in love with food when visiting France with her husband. Upon publishing her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she turned subsequent books, her award-winning television show “The French Chef” and various stints on radio, television, and public appearances into her role as the first American celebrity chef. Dana Polan, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, credits Child with America’s current interest in all-things culinary. “She helped democratize gourmet cooking and prepared the way for all the forms of popular culture today, from TV to restaurant talk to blogs, that make foodie obsessions around eating great tasting food so prevalent,” said Polan in an email interview.

Since then, though others have joined Child in the ranks of star chefs, there is no easy formula for predicting celebrity in the culinary world. Some star on their own Food Network series, others own Michelin-starred restaurants, win James Beard Foundation recognition (the biggest award for a foodie), or start their own kitchen product empire.

Television series about cooking and food have propelled the celebrification of chefs. “The rise of food television and food journalism [during my time as a critic] spawned a new generation of foodies,” says Grimes. “The amount of attention that New Yorkers paid to food was on the rise.” Since Child’s “The French Chef” premiered on PBS in 1963, over 100 different television series on food preparation have aired in the United States alone, helped in great part by the founding of the Food Network in 1993. Ranging from competitive cooking shows like “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Food Network Star” to “how-to” programs such as “Barefoot Contessa” and “Essence of Emeril,” the channel draws more than 1.1 million viewers each night, making Food Network one of the top 10 most-viewed cable channels, according to Nielsen ratings. In May 2010, Scripps Network Interactive, the corporation that owns Food Network, launched another channel with food-related programs called The Cooking Channel with similar content. Nemmers, who claims Food Network stars Tyler Florence of “Tyler’s Ultimate” and Michael Chiarello of “Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello” as personal influences, called food television “addictive.”

While Julia Child certainly helped establish the notion of chef as celebrity and the boom in food television expanded it, certain changes in fine dining have also helped turn previously unknown names into major players. Frank Bruni, former chief restaurant critic for the New York Times from 2004 to 2009, elucidated his views on how celebrity chefdom formed, pointing to David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants as a successful model. “There’s never any one year that’s a hinge or any one period…but in the 1990s and early 2000s, what really became apparent was the existence of extraordinary ambition and creativity in utterly unfussy settings, with unceremonious service,” says Bruni. “ The Momofuku restaurants (Noodle Bar, Ssam, Ko) were most emblematic of this.”

Chang’s Michelin-starred Momofuku restaurant chain has, indeed, received unparalleled acclaim for their approach to atmospheric dining. One of the more recognizable celebrity chefs, Chang, 35, opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, the first of the line, in 2004. The entrepreneur reportedly grossed $4 million in 2012 due to his multifaceted empire including a PBS show, cookbook, and magazine as well as the restaurants.

Many chefs aspire to Chang’s level of success. Honored with a spot on the 2010 “Time” Top 100 Most Influential People list and an Outstanding Chef award from the James Beard Foundation, Chang approached fine dining in a whole new way by turning previously unremarkable items – ramen, pork buns, fried chicken – into an empire.

Nemmers admires Chang’s restaurant model, calling  it “revolutionary.” “Chang’s empire is based on a niche, and he exploded that niche. Literally, he started with pork buns, and it became the biggest thing ever,” says Nemmers. “Everything he does is not to go out of the way and be weird and creative – people want cocktails, so he opened Booker and Dax; people want sweet stuff, so there’s Milk Bar. He recognizes what people and the masses want, and then does it.”

Not all big-name chefs are able to maintain such a popular and profitable brand. “I think the celebrity chef – the phenomenon of it – led many people into a consciousness of food and an interest in dining out that they might not otherwise have had. And that’s great,” said Bruni. “The down side is that chefs now had divided ambitions and attentions: for fame and exposure, not just for great output. So it’s a mixed bag.”

Often when one restaurant is extremely successful, there is pressure to open others to capitalize on the initial success. Often the caliber of the restaurants may be affected. “I am happy to see chefs get the recognition and the money they deserve. I am less happy with the relentless drive to spin off one restaurant after another, says Grimes, the author of “Appetite City.” “Some chefs can do this intelligently and maintain standards of quality: Vongerichten, Boulud, Ducasse, Tourondel come to mind. Gordon Ramsay is a cautionary tale. His empire became too grand, and quality suffered.”

Gordon Ramsay, raised in England, pursued cooking after an injury sidelined his soccer dreams. After training with world famous chefs, he opened Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London in 1998. Ramsay has a reported net worth of $50 million and his 30 restaurants around the globe have been awarded 15 Michelin stars. While he remains a successful television personality with his three FOX television shows, ongoing disputes with the restaurant group’s holdings and substantial market losses in recent years have hurt Ramsay’s reputation in the culinary world.

Unlike Ramsay, other celebrity chefs have succeeded in maintaining multiple acclaimed restaurants without marring their name. In New York in 1985, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café opened and Alfred Portale joined Gotham Bar and Grill. 1985 was a landmark year for the changing culinary scene in New York, and consequently, America. The emergence of these two still-open restaurants ushered in a new era of fine dining. Since then, as CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyers has opened Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Shake Shack and Maialino, among others. Portale continued his success with Gotham, expanding the Gotham name with another steakhouse in Miami. Additionally, many consider Jean-Georges Vongerichten, executive chef of his eponymous Jean-Georges in the Upper West Side, an exemplary chef-cum-restaurateur with his international empire of 35 dining establishments and apparently successful business model.

Blue Hill is another standout restaurant group, though not quite an empire. Both the Blue Hill restaurant located in the West Village and its sister, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located at a farm in the Pocantico Hills in upstate New York, have been internationally acclaimed for being at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened in 2004, incorporates a New York City-style formal approach to fine dining with an intense focus on seasonal ingredients fresh from the farm. The executive chef and co-owner of both restaurants, Dan Barber, has achieved celebrity status with being named to thee Times’ annual “Time 100” list in 2009, two separate James Beard awards and an appointment to a position on President Obama’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He and his partners take a “philosophical” approach to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the efforts of which have earned the restaurant numerous high accolades including a three-star review from New York Times, a 28/30 Zagat rating, and a spot on the Top 40 restaurants in the U.S. list by luxury lifestyle guide Gayot. In a Serious Eats article from June 2008, the blog’s creator Ed Levine called it the “most important restaurant in America.”

Blue Hill at Stone Barns was the deciding factor in Nemmers moving to New York. In 2009, after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, he took out a loan and agreed to a homestay in his new upstate location after securing a position in the kitchen at Stone Barns. After working an estage (a culinary apprenticeship), Nemmers went on to hold a variety of positions, deciding on working the pastry station with famed pastry chef Alex Grunert. Nemmers believes part of the success of Stone Barns is the extreme focus on high quality. “The best part of Stone Barns was the relationship they give you with the actual product,” says Nemmers. “Once a week they brought in people who specialize in certain products – a fish guy from Spain, mushroom farmers, cheesemakers – and these people really helped us understand the ingredients.” All 30 cooks got a break from the kitchen when they spent two hours every morning helping to do farm chores, from weeding and seeding to chopping firewood.

Despite enjoying his time there, Nemmers decided he wanted to move to New York City. Grunert “hooked him up” with Matthew Lightner. Dwight Merriman, one of the founders of Business Insider as well as the owner of multiple startups, brought in Lightner from Portland, Ore. after deciding his next startup move was a fine dining restaurant in New York. Nemmers was there from the beginning, when Atera was originally called Compose. He helped with testing dishes, creating the mock menu for investors, and once again seamlessly moved from pastry to savory four months after beginning work in March 2012.

In an interview  Zach Hunter, the current sous chef at Atera and a friend of Nemmers’, explained what makes the top-rated restaurant a continuous standout. “We have no boundaries in the way we cook or the products that we use,” said Hunter. “We simply cook to make food taste the way it should. We stay on the cutting edge of techniques and new ideas, and spend much of our time on research and development of these new ideas.”

Just shy of a year at Atera, Nemmers heard about plans for Omar. Located in the Greenwich Village in the former Griffou Hotel space at Ninth St., Omar opened on May 4, 2013. The restaurant will take an interesting spin on the tasting menu model: half of the restaurant will be a la carte and “open to the masses,” while the other side will be an exclusive members-only dining club with the goal of providing supremely attentive service while dishing  up culinary wonders. “In fine dining, you have to have service on par, equal if not better than, the food,” said Nemmers. “One bad thing, like waiting for a cocktail or to have your wine refilled, and a customer will leave and say something bad. Fine dining is a total experience.”

In keeping with this “total experience,” for a hefty fee a yearly membership at Omar yields one exceptional benefit: no reservation necessary. The 60-seat dining area will always be open to members. Hernandez has likened a membership to holding a key to Gramercy Park. “The idea is for members to come in after a long day golfing, business meetings, whatever, and for them to trust us to cook for them like its home,” said Nemmers. “Essentially, whatever they need to feel taken care of.”

So will working at Omar be the step that turns Nemmers into a star? Is his goal even to become a celeb chef, or is he content simply to continue cooking at the highest levels in one of the cuisine capitals of the world? He paused, presumably not knowing how to answer the question. After all, chefs are in the business of hospitality, where humbleness is valued over hubris. “Omar is my biggest and best option right now,” said Nemmers, slightly smiling while fiddling with a pen. “And it’s going to be an exciting experience.”


Aside from Atera, New York has many other fine-dining restaurants well-known for their tasting menus. Below, a list of five other establishments dishing out twenty-plus dishes.

  1. Annisa, West Village, 13 Barrow St. between 7th Ave. and W. 4th St. http://www.annisarestaurant.com/
  2. The Grocery, Carroll Gardens, 288 Smith St. between Sackett St. and Union St. http://thegroceryrestaurant.com/
  3. Mas (Farmhouse), West Village, 39 Downing St. between Bedford St. and Varick St. http://www.masfarmhouse.com/
  4. Daniel, Upper East Side, 60 E. 65th St. between Madison Ave. and Park Ave. http://danielnyc.com/
  5. Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Downtown Brooklyn, 200 Schermerhorn St. near Hoyt St.http://www.brooklynfare.com/pages/chefs-table