Sometimes, a decision in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant far, far away may end up as the vegetable you serve your kids on Wednesday. Take kale, for example. A few months after chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York wrote up a kale recipe for a food magazine, the once forgotten vegetable became the focus of a healthy trend, a fashionable addition to the foodie plate and now has dug itself into the mainstream. There is something almost otherworldy in the way that happened and the other people (and one company) that we have designated “Gods of Food” have their own roles in working the magical thinking and eating that reaches our dinner tables. Here is the pantheon as we see it:
1. Andrea Petrini. The Paris-based Italian food critic is the impresario of gourmet spectacles that showcase talent and make stars of young chefs. The events he organizes have also resulted in many friendships among cooks who may never have had the chance to meet each other.
2. Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The cookbook authors were both born in Jerusalem on opposite sides of the city’s deep divide: Ottolenghi is Jewish; Tamimi is Arab. But their collaboration Jerusalem is a magnificent compilation of the Holy City’s cuisine, a delicious alternative for what’s on the political menu.
3. Sergio Nuñez de Arco. The Bolivia-born entrepreneur caught on to the attractions of the indigenous grain quinoa—and now the poor man’s food of his native country has struck it rich in the U.S.
4. Amrita Patel. She has overseen the continuing growth of India’s cooperative milk industry and distribution system, making it an engine of socio-economic progress in a nation where dairy was once scare.
5. Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Those words are his and they are the three basic commandments of the sustainable food movement. His books are its scripture.
6. Alex Atala, René Redzepi and David Chang. They are three of the best and best known chefs in the world—and also best buds. Their friendship and openness reflect the new, more open world of the haute cuisine, a positive step away from the secretive and egotistical realm of old.
7. Albert Adrià. He will soon be running five restaurants in the same district of Barcelona—and literally runs across the street to manage them. But he is more than a good chef—that is, commander of the kitchen. Of all of his ilk, he is probably the best cook, a magician of the kitchen, able to sew together inspiration and execution seamlessly.
8. Wan Long. Once a soldier, he is now the chairman of the largest meat processing company in China, a country that loves its pigs. And to help satisfy the Middle Kingdom’s hunger for pork—and for safe pork—he is purchasing Smithfield Foods, the largest pork farmer and producer in the U.S.
9. Dan Barber. Apart from being perhaps the only name that can be really attached to the beginning of the kale revolution, Barber is trying to begin a philosophical and practical consideration of the way we breed plants—all the way to the seed level—as a way to make sure the food we eat is more flavorful as well as healthier.
10. Aida Batlle. As a child, she fled her native El Salvador to grow up in Miami. But when she returned, she revived and transformed her family’s coffee plantations, plugging into a new appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of site-specific coffee cherry and beans, part of a new wave of flavors that come from careful roasting. She is teaching us to delight in slow—not instant—coffee.
11. Vandana Shiva. Trained as a physicist, she is the intellectual firebrand that scorches big agriculture and the proponents of genetically modified food. Her charismatic appearances and speeches help energize the battle against so-called “Franken-foods”—despite arguments that GM foods might actually help the poor and the starving.
12. Ertharin Cousin. The head of the U.N. World Food Programme is responsible for feeding more people than anyone else on the planet. But she does it with an eye to what actually satisfies people—not just basic nutrition.
13. True World Foods. The sushi you eat may be from this mysterious but ubiquitous purveyor, perhaps the largest supplier of raw fish across the U.S. To add to the murkiness, the company has links to the controversial Unification Church founded by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.