5 Top Chefs in the Ancient World

Unwrapping the Eats of Antiquity

Top Chef might be a twenty-first century program, but first-class cooks existed far before our era. Chefs have catered to kings, invented delicious dishes, and brewed bubbly beverages to taste for millennia. Here are five top chefs - or groups of gastro-masters - who paved the way for the Bobby Flays and Rachel Rays of today.

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Mithaecus, Sicilian Chef de Cuisine

Mithaecus's speciality was cooking ribbonfish. Mike Hargreaves/Getty Images

Mithaecus primarily survives in fragments and secondary sources, but what we do know of him makes up pretty tasty tidbits. He was a Sicilian chef who literally wrote the book on his native cuisine, according to Plato. Mithaecus's magnum opus was called The Art of Cookery, which the poet and gourmand Archestratus cited frequently

He came to prominence in the fifth century B.C., around the time when commercial bakeries first started becoming popular in Athens (and possibly Sparta). This period was also one of increased contact and cultural exchange between Greece and Sicily

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Ancient Greek Master Chefs

The ancients were the first to show how sausage was made. Linda Long/EyeEm/Getty Images

Archestratus, as cited by Athenaeus, mentioned a series of Greek cooks - who were in turn spoken about in a play. Each had mastered a specific dish to delight the palate.

Agis of Rhodes was the master baker when it came to fish; Nereus of Chios knew how to boil a conger eel better than anyone else. The playwright described eggs as only the Greeks could: "Chariades, who came from Athens, could make an egg mosaic with white sauce." 

Lamprias first started making "black broth," a Spartan dish made of pork cooked in pig's blood, with salt and vinegar added to taste. Aphthonetus mastered the art of sausage-making, Euthynus made lentil soup, and Aristion cooked up gilt-heads (a kind of fish).

These guys became the James Beards of their time, the "second group of Seven Sages," the wisest men and some of the founders of  Greek philosophy.

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Khonso-Im-Heb, A Chief Beer-Maker in Egypt

Apparently, ancient Egyptian women made beer naked!. De Agostini/G. Nimatallah/Getty Images

The Egyptians loved their food and, in particular, their beer, which was quite different from modern brews. As it turns out, the gods also loved a good ale or two, as their temples featured in-house brewers. Archaeologist recently uncovered the tomb of Khonso Im-Heb. He was the supervisor of granaries and beer-making at a temple of the goddess Mut during the reign of King Amenhotep III.

Japanese archaeologists stumbled across the beautifully decorated, T-shaped tomb. K-I-H must have been pretty wealthy to get such a nice resting place!

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Apicius, Personal Chef to the Emperor Trajan

Trajan got b(oyster)ous in Parthia. Jack Andersen/Getty Images

There were two Apiciuses - or Apicii, to be exact. The famed cookbook writer, who may or may not have been the person to write that culinary tome, and then then an actual ancient chef. Good old Athenaeus came to the rescue yet again, with details about the Roman emperor Trajan's personal chef.

Apicius made sure to get Trajan whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it - no matter how inconvenient. Wrote Athenaeus, "When the Emperor Trajan was in Parthia, many days' journey away from the sea, Apicius caused fresh oysters to be sent to him in packing carefully devised by himself." In that sense, he was better off than Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, who wanted anchovies, couldn't get them, and was served fake anchovies by his chef.

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The Personal Baker to an Ancient Royal Gazillionaire

King Croesus is waiting on his baked goods. Claude Vignon/DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

The phrase "rich as Croesus" came from the ancient king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who "was possessed of great military forces and had purposely amassed a large amount of silver and gold," according to Diodorus Siculus. This sixth-century B.C. gentleman, who ended up being captured by Cyrus the Great of Persia, was reputedly the first king to ever mint gold and silver coins, but he also had great taste in baked goods.

Croesus's personal baker, whose name we don't know, but she definitely was female, was such a boon to the royal yeast that she warranted a statue in her honor. In his HistoriesHerodotus wrote that the king sent a whole bunch of gifts to Apollo's oracle at Delphi, including a "female figure five feet high, which the Delphians assert to be the statue of the woman who was Croesus's baker." Honored for eternity at Apollo's sanctuary? Not a bad ending for a baker!