The dining section of the New York Times recently chose one classic cheesecake recipe to rule them all. It didn’t come from a reigning food celebrity or famous pastry chef or even a New York cheesecake institution like Junior’s, but from Craig Claiborne, a man who made his living by eating more than cooking.
Dubbed “America’s Original Foodie” by too many people to count, the longtime New York Times restaurant critic wrote about food and dining out at the very moment that mainstream America was using its postwar affluence to wander outside the home and embrace the exploration of foreign cuisines.
And for over three decades, restaurant owners and staffs alike lived in fear of him. Generations of writers emulated his style. Claiborne also pioneered tactics like the anonymous review and went back to dine at a venue several times before he judged. A trained chef, he also wrote the very first New York Times Cookbook, which sold millions of copies and remains a flour-speckled staple in countless kitchens.
Only 15 years after his death, Claiborne’s name may have receded from a fickle public consciousness, but you’ve almost certainly heard of the chefs and personalities he discovered and championed—Julia Child, James Beard, and Jacques Pépin, to name a few.
Despite his countless successes and disproportionate authority, Claiborne also had his foibles. He was hopefully insecure, pathologically fond of the drink, and alienated his friends and associates quickly. But it was my curiosity about his ability to be so influential that led me to seek out Thomas McNamee’s biography of Claiborne, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat.
In it, McNamee dissects how Claiborne went from rural Mississippi upstart to the veritable king of American food. Claiborne’s story also provides a good blueprint for anyone striking out to become the next Julia Child of design, the next James Beard of tech, or the next Jacques Pépin of marketing.
The first major lesson McNamee relays from Claiborne’s experience has to do with making the most of one’s experiences. What prepared Claiborne to become the leader of an American culinary revolution? His entire life: growing up in a boarding house, serving in the Navy, being curious about African spices and French cuisine while stationed in Morocco, and finally, attending a prestigious Swiss hotel school. “He liked order,” one observer of McNamee notes, putting it lightly. But he also had an obsession and put all his life experience in the service of it.
Moreover, Claiborne didn’t just identify a moment, he also made it his own. As McNamee relays, Claiborne’s success “was due to good timing, but also to his eccentric and willful imagination, his openness to the cuisines of the world, high and low, and not incidentally to his enormous capacity for hard work.”
These are critical attributes for anyone seeking success and sway, particularly if you are at the nexus of creation and commerce. It also helped that Claiborne found a way to communicate with extreme efficacy in his reviews, recipes, and missives. One particular and enduring example: In 1963, as McNamee notes, Claiborne introduced the star rating system into his restaurant reviews for the paper.
It was not only a stroke of genius, but a fixture he wasn’t afraid to tinker with. Over a year after the system was established, Claiborne changed it from a three-star model to a four-star paradigm, the very one we still see today in newspapers and on websites across the world. That’s not just cheesecake. That’s influence.