Quality food or Quality chefs?

Mimi Sheraton recently posed a hypothetical question to Anthony Bourdain, Heston Blumenthal, and Marco Pierre White:

If you had to choose between first-rate ingredients prepared by a second-rate chef, or second-rate (but not spoiled) ingredients cooked up by a first-rate chef, which would you choose?

I’ve been thinking about this question for well over a day now, because something about its premise is bothering me. I think what it boils down to is this: Part of variety of skills needed to be a top level chef is to recognize the quality ingredients from the merely adequate. In my mind, a second rate chef would only come across quality ingredients only by happenstance or by guidance from a first rate peer.

But Ms. Sheraton’s point as it relates to the restaurant industry is quite relevant. If you go into a Mario Batali restaurant thinking that he himself is cooking today, you run the risk of being highly disappointed. So, if we’re running under the assumption that the highly praised chef’s kitchen may not actually contain said chef, why are we going to their restaurant to begin with?

It’s this question that makes me believe that, while we think that we’re going for the chef, what we are going for is the quality of the ingredients and, more importantly, the quality of the recipes. For while the first rate chef may not actually be on site, we know, through both experience, accounts of others, and good ol’ fashioned PR, that the food is still top notch, because the chef has dictated that the quality of the food must be of a certain quality, and that the dishes must be prepared to specific set of instructions (the recipe) even when the chef is not on site.

So, getting back to the initial question, it does come this. Since the question didn’t take into account the idea of recipes, I’m going to side on choosing second rate food with a first rate chef, for the following reason: A great chef knows how to do more with less, and has more options available to them in order to create a good if not great dish. A second rate chef simply may not know how to get the most flavor out of their ingredients.

But of course, I may be wrong. What do you think?