Last January we published our first annual list of America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food (2011). It's that time again. Many of last year's names appear on this year's roster, but there are some new names, too, which of course means that some of last year's are missing. Some folks moved up the ladder, as well, and some moved down. This might be because of new accomplishments (or because of What Have They Done for Us Lately?) or just because we're looking at them this year from a different angle.
Click here to see America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food for 2012 Slideshow
Power is juice - the ability to make things happen. It's authority, strength, muscle. It's what starts trends, pulls strings, rewrites rules, and shifts paradigms. In the food world, the people with power are the ones who affect what and how and where and why we eat, or could if they wanted to. They're the agribusiness moguls who decide - either responding to market demand or creating it - what crops are planted and how they're harvested and sold. They're the representatives of major food processing and distribution concerns and retail food outlets, which is to say the people who actually put food on our tables. They're the scolds and nannies - and admirable consumer advocates - who tell us what we should and shouldn't eat and why, sometimes upending whole industries in the process; the key figures in the governmental agencies concerned with the economics and the safety of our food supply; the media stars and public figures who sway our food opinions and stimulate our appetites; the chefs and restaurateurs who introduce us to new raw materials, new dishes, new culinary notions, and establish the standards we come to expect for the preparation and the serving of food. They're the journalists, online or on television or even still sometimes in print, who report on all of the above…
Click here to see America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food for 2011 Slideshow
Any catalogue of powerful people - and certainly any ranking of them in order of clout - is bound to be highly subjective, of course. That doesn't mean that it has to be arbitrary. We collaborated to assemble an initial list, then added and subtracted, fine-tuned and developed. We did extensive research and had endless discussions and occasionally strenuous debates. One thing that was clear from the beginning was that the most influential figures in the field weren't always the best-known, and that CEOs could wield more might than culinary celebrities.
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Our ultimate criterion was simply this: Is each person on our list capable, whether by dint of corporate station, media access, moral authority, or sheer personality, of substantially changing, improving, and/or degrading the quality and variety of the American diet or the way we think about it? If so, how absolute is the power he or she can bring to bear?
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We've certainly included some high-profile individuals - the ever-ubiquitous Wolfgang Puck (#13), who was arguably our first genuine modern-day food star; arbiter of Top-Chef-ness Tom Colicchio (#38); TV physician Dr. (Mehmet) Oz (#40); and first lady and healthy-eating advocate Michelle Obama (#8), to name but four - but they are interleafed with less familiar personalities. Among these are Jim Skinner (#6), who runs a little fast-food chain called McDonald's; Hugh Grant (#9) - no, not that Hugh Grant - who's the big boss at the controversial Monsanto company, purveyors extraordinaire of genetically modified seeds; Dawn Sweeney (#34), president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association (NRA); and Bill Marler (#46), food safety advocate and a personal injury lawyer who specializes in defending people who contract foodborne illnesses at the hands of large concerns.
In a number of cases, it must be admitted, power accrues not to an individual so much as to the company or agency or advocacy group he or she commands. Anyone who won the top spot at Monsanto or the NRA would make our list. Patricia Woertz (#10) wields swack because she's chairman and CEO of the massive agribusiness firm Archer Daniels Midland, and Susan Ungaro (#39) because she heads up the James Beard Foundation. In the case of The New York Times restaurant critic (#14), without doubt the most influential reviewer of that kind in the country, we've left out the name of the current occupier of the position, both because he has hardly begun in the job and because he theoretically strives for anonymity. Anyway, you could put Homer Simpson in the slot and it would still be a power post.
It should be stressed that a high ranking on our list of the 50 most powerful food folk in America doesn't necessarily imply approval. Putting the president of Subway above the director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium doesn't mean we think assembling foot-long chipotle chicken and cheese sandwiches is a nobler pursuit than monitoring and encouraging sustainable fisheries - just that more Americans (sad to say) are probably affected by the former than the latter.
Martha StewartMartha Stewart, Author, Publisher, TV Personality
Late last year, her daughter Alexis published a book called Whateverland: Learning to Live Here (co-written with Jennifer Koppelman Hutt) that painted Stewart in a not-so-pleasant light, and it was announced that her daytime TV show would cease production in April of 2012. All that aside, she celebrates the 30th anniversary of her seminal first book, Entertaining, this year and she remains one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry. Despite some restructuring, her company, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, continues to produce books, periodicals, housewares, and more, and she remains an arbiter of domestic fad and fashion, in and out of the kitchen.
Mark BittmanMark Bittman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times
This almost frighteningly prolific food journalist and author of the wildly popular How to Cook Everything, among many other books, no longer writes his "The Minimalist" cooking column for The New York Times, but he has traded up to a regular recipe spread in the Times Sunday Magazine and a gig ruminating on food politics for the paper's op-ed pages. He has the platform, and in time will doubtless figure out how to use it to maximum effect.
Elise BauerElise Bauer, Blogger, SimplyRecipes.com
Bauer's blog features more than one thousand recipes - a virtual recipe box stuffed with her favorite homespun dishes. Simply Recipes features her own tried-and-true formulas, along with those crafted by family and friends. Bauer started the blog in 2003 as a way to document the recipes that she grew up with in a household of six children. Her site regularly records more than 6 million monthly unique visitors, astonishing for a modest blog, and in 2011, she claimed the top spot on The Daily Meal's ranking of 25 top food blogs for the second year running.
Dr. Mehmet OzDr. Mehmet Oz, Host of 'The Dr. Oz Show'
Dr. Oz had a good year. This Turkish-American cardiothoracic surgeon and author already hosted a popular daily TV broadcast about medical issues and personal health (which won him a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host), as well as a virtual nutrition and exercise program called Move It and Lose It. In those contexts, he has had a major influence on American's eating habits. Then, in late 2011, he went on to establish himself as a strong voice in the pursuit of consumer food safety, reporting his findings that arsenic levels in store-bought apple juice made it unsafe for drinking. The FDA responded by calling Oz's study flawed and "extremely irresponsible," but subsequent studies have added to a growing body of evidence suggesting that he might have been right.
Tom ColicchioTom Colicchio, Chef-Restaurateur, and TV Personality
Since 2006, Colicchio has been the host of Bravo TV's Top Chef, which has made him one of the most visible restaurant figures in the country (he has even done cameos on Treme and The Simpsons). Through the success of the TV show, he has helped bring both veteran and novice chefs into the living rooms and onto the computer screens of individuals who don't even watch the Food Network. Sure, he's shilling Coca-Cola, but he's also an incredibly accomplished chef and the recipient of five James Beard Awards. He is also the proprietor of a successful dining empire, with fine dining establishments like Craft, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011, as well as the 'wichcraft upscale sandwich shops, now found all over the U.S.
Anthony BourdainAnthony Bourdain, Author and TV Host
Forget that his lurid backstage restaurant memoir, Kitchen Confidential, inspired countless people to enroll in culinary school (and countless chefs to write in-the-life follow-ups) and probably spurred many more to devote themselves to the bad-boy chef lifestyle he has now left behind. Ignore the fact that getting a timely reservation at any restaurant featured on his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, becomes virtually impossible. Concentrate instead on the fact that Bourdain is one of America's preeminent food-travel references. He has helped to popularize the pastime of seeking out memorable food scenes, from the bizarre to the iconic, across the country and around the world. Plus, when he speaks, whether it's about Paula Deen, Ruth Bourdain, Alan Richman, or just about anyone else, people listen. And hey, he has even scored himself a second food TV show, The Layover, that is all but indistinguishable from his first one. Now that's power.
Alice WatersAlice Waters, Chef-Restauranteur and Founder and Director, The Edible Schoolyard
Although she introduced a whole generation of Americans to the very notion of organic and locally sourced food, Waters' most recent influence can be seen in the growing awareness of childhood nutrition through her foundation the Edible Schoolyard. Even Anthony Bourdain, who once said that Alice Waters annoyed "the living s*@# out of [him]," has called her a visionary, and described her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse - which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 - as "inarguably a cradle of the food revolution." Working to "teach, nurture, and empower young people," Waters has used her power to influence legislation, and was largely responsible for encouraging Michelle Obama to create a White House garden. With the James Beard Leadership Award she received in 2011, it's clear that she has long been a driving force in the restaurant world, and is increasingly one in the political sphere as well.
Mario BataliMario Batali, Chef-Restauranteur, and TV Personality
If his fiery red hair and statement orange Crocs aren't enough to make celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali stand out, wait until he opens his mouth. This cookbook author and media personality is one Italian-American who is definitely interested in sharing with others, and changing our perceptions about what is probably the world's most popular cuisine along the way. Whether he's dispensing the secrets of soulful Italian cooking, promoting his rapidly expanding Eataly market/eatery concept (in partnership with Joe Bastianich), or just offering his insights on food culture in general, we're pretty sure we'll be hearing a lot from him for a long time to come. It doesn't hurt that he is also the co-host of ABC's new daytime talk show, The Chew, or that his seven-plus restaurants are pretty stellar.
Wolfgang PuckWolfgang Puck, Chef-Resturanteur
Puck's famous smiling face has become an instantly recognizable trademark all over America. Quite possibly the first real cross-media celebrity chef in the country, he more or less set the bar for California cuisine, can lay fair claim to having invented (or certainly refined) Asian fusion food, has opened a multitude of eateries from sophisticated restaurants to airport to-gos, and remains one of the most popular icons in the frozen food section. With two new restaurants opened in 2011, CUT at 45 Park Lane in London and Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air in West Los Angeles, Puck keeps his hands very much in the game. Another claim to fame last year? He was the chef to the ill-fated wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphies.
The First Lady, Michelle ObamaMichelle Obama, First Lady of the United States and Dietary Activist
In 2009, she turned the spotlight on healthy, locally grown fruit and vegetables simply by planting (partly with her own hands) a White House garden on the South Lawn. The plot, from which 1,000 pounds of food were harvested that first year, was expanded by 400 square feet in 2010. It is a living, growing symbol of the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign, an effort to make school food healthier and to reduce childhood obesity to 5 percent by 2030. And when the White House speaks, people listen. Sometimes they even like what they hear. During 2011, the first lady succeeded in urging a host of major casual chain restaurants, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to revamp their menus to include healthier meal options. Oh, and let's not forget that she also has plans to publish a gardening book, called American Grown, in the spring that explores the benefits of having access to fresh, affordable food and the impact on American communities. Mrs. Obama was also awarded a James Beard Leadership Award in October.
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- Colman Andrews, The Daily Meal
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