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America's new culinary renaissance

We're becoming a nation of food fanatics, signing up for cooking classes, turning into gourmets in the kitchen, and making dining in or out the equivalent of a cultural event. Is America the new France?

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It has also made cooking glamorous. Cooks used to toil in anonymity behind portal-windowed kitchen doors. Now many of them have become celebrities, spending as much time on talk shows and in TV commercials as they do on menus (or, in the case of Paula Deen, being grand marshal of the most recent Rose Parade in January).

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Even more workaday chefs are being asked to come out from behind their colanders. People want to know their lineage – where they've worked and for whom. They've become public figures as much as purveyors of parsley.

"Before if you wanted to be a chef, you had to know how to cut and cook," says Waysok, the chef putting on the demonstration at Chicago's botanical garden. "Now all of sudden you have to have a personality and talk to people, too."

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While a nation of foodies may seem like a recent phenomenon, many see it evolving out of a much deeper food revolution. James Beard introduced the American public to the idea that food could be "gourmet" in the 1950s. The indomitable Ms. Child began tutoring us on French cooking in the 1960s.

Alice Waters – the grand dame of the "slow food" movement – started declaring the benefits of locally grown goods in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1970s. Her work continues to be influential today, including in the efforts of first lady Michelle Obama to bring healthy foods to inner-city communities.

The "eat fresh" movement, in turn, has contributed to making food more than something you just consume at the dinner table. It has elevated it to a lifestyle. More people now grow their own herbs and vegetables, whether in rooftop gardens or in backyard plots such as Mr. Ainsworth's in Needham. Farmers' markets are flourishing. Last year, more than 6,100 of them operated across the country, according to the US Department of Agriculture – a 16 percent increase over the year before.

"Locally grown food" and "in season" ingredients are the rage among restaurants in every region, too. Some of them even host "farm to table" events where patrons can meet the farmer who grew the beets marinating in vinaigrette on their salad plate. The idea is to create not just a meal but an experience. (A "farm dinner" held at the Chicago Botanic Garden, as a fundraiser, costs $200 a person.)

Ana Sortun and her husband, Chris Kurth, epitomize the growing trend. She is the head chef and owner of a restaurant and bakery in Cambridge, Mass. The Eastern Mediterranean cuisine she serves at Oleana has earned her a James Beard award and a spot on "Top Chef Masters." In addition to writing a cookbook, she and her staff offer cooking and baking classes at Sofra, her bakery.

The flavors and spices that form the basis of her cuisine are enhanced by the fresh produce she gets delivered each day from a familiar source – her husband. He runs a 50-acre organic plot, Siena Farms, which produces enough carrots, radishes, and other food to supply restaurants, farm stands, and a 300-member community agricultural group in the Boston area. Theirs is a marriage of local produce and worldly flavors. "We are ingredient seekers," says Ms. Sortun. "Forget that we love farmers and it's good for the environment and all that stuff. The main reason we [use locally grown food] is because it tastes better."

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