Crazy: Losing touch with reality while slaving away at the stove
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2004)
The job of a chef is gaining glamour and public interest, but there is more than meets the eye. In fact, the life of a professional cook is an all encompassing, challenging, demanding, highly satisfying, yet ultimately disorienting job.
The restaurant kitchen is a peculiar place. There are strange rules, strict hierarchy and discipline, but you find the childishness of a schoolyard, the superstitions of a cult. Cooks face absolute deadlines less flexible than an editor’s. The precision of a technician is required inorder to survive. The atmosphere can have the intensity of an operating room. But instead of doctors, you find the characters from a circus. Not unlike a circus or some theatrical production, the curtain opens, and the cooks do their kitchen dance, people are stepping over eachother in a mad fury, rushing to and fro, flipping, plating, while the maestro waves his wand or shouts obscenities. With the synchonicity and timing of a classical piece, and the improvisation of good jazz, they play their notes, eager to please. On most nights, they need the stamina of a marathon runner, and the tolerence for heat of a cement mixer on a hot roof.
They sniff and taste all day long, nurture their plants, their produce and the curing hams, they nitpick over a myriad of details in the preparation and presentation of the dishes. It’s all about the food, and as they are so in tune with their meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, food takes on a distorted importance. Their perspective can’t help but be skewed. They spend way too much money on food, and develop strong opinions about food. How could someone eat veal with ketchup? A filet well-done, blasphemy! How could someone not like butter? Or be allergic to carrots? How could someone not understand that taking the mushrooms out of a dish wrecks the whole balance?
The cook functions in a world of heightened senses due to the emphasis on taste, touch and smell, as well as the constant heat, pressure and confined space of a kitchen. There are rarely windows in a restaurant kitchen, most are closed off from the dining room. This all makes for an environment where certain behaviors that would seem barbaric in the real world become acceptable, even normal. Like swearing profusely, telling off color jokes, engaging in sudden emotional outbursts and playing juvenile tricks on one another. They like to bitch, even if they love their jobs. They thrive on adrenalin, are good at holding their bladders for extended periods of time, and frequently suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. They eat at obscene hours, and smoke and drink alot. They stay up late. They do more cooking and eating and partying, as well as their laundry and shopping on Sundays and Mondays. They never spend nights, weekends or holidays with their family or friends, so they live with a lot of guilt. Which makes them smoke and drink more.
In such a fast paced, severe, chaotic, physical yet artistic world with so many variables and unpredictable customers, and a new show to put on everyday, its no wonder chefs are crazy. Like the chicken and the egg, we aren’t sure which comes first the crazy or the chef, but in this surreal world, there is no doubt that if a fully engaged cook isn’t crazy to begin with, he certainly will be sooner or later.