The Chef – artist, technician, businessperson or kook?
Unearthing the essence of a professional cook
Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
For years, cooks have been overlooked, under paid, and often disregarded as menial labor, mere servants, rejects from academia and the mainstream. But now that dining out and cooking have become the most popular social activities of the upper class, everyone wants a peek into the kitchen. They want to know what is going on, who these mysterious people are.
As we gaze at these celebrity chef stars, we naturally gather that a chef today is primarily a fun, charismatic carefree and wealthy guy like Emeril. Or a serious artist and meticulous workaholic with magical powers allowing him to be in multiple locations at once, globe trotting and making cameo appearances in the occasional movie like Charlie Trotter. Maybe, he/she is a rough and tough, dope-smoking, pan flinging crazy man like Anthony Bourdain. Or by the looks of Wolfgang Puck and Alain Ducasse, he/she is a corporate businessperson above all. How accurate are thes depictions of the modern chef? Are they living proof of the evolution of the lowly cook of yesteryear?
Indeed, these chefs are true masters at the height of the profession and worthy of their status. Nonethess, they show us only part of the picture, some of what is possible. Their public images are mere sketches that give a skewed image, the glamour overshadowing the real essence of the professional chef. Take these new coverboys and dig beneath the shiny gloss of the designer chefwear, the logos, their extravagant signature dishes, and what do you get?
You see the real stuff that is strutted in kitchens across the globe behind closed doors. This is my world, and from the front lines, I can tell you that in reality, the professional cook is much more than meets the eye. He/she is still the skilled laborer, technician and robot of the Escoffier era. He/she is an artist too, however not to the extent that many seem to think. Frankly, I get annoyed at how often people allude to my vocation as art. As if I go to work, get inspired; whip a few things together and voilà, job complete. Yes, there is a creative element reserved for the few at the top of the ladder, but even then, it amounts to a small percentage of the workload. Moreover, it’s creative expression on a strict time frame among many other constraints like feasibility due to staff, materials, equipment, profibability, etc. The truth is that professional cooking is much more about systematic, tedious, backbreaking tasks, as well as discipline and organization. Of course, behind the scenes, traditon and science plays an important role in terms of setting the rules and guiding principles that must be respected. So, the masterful chef is at once a scholar, composer, conductor and army seargent leading a brigade of cooks.
A good cook, whether doling out the commands or following them, has to also have a good palate, he/she has to be in tune with his/her senses so that he/she can be able to qualify the desired result and reproduce it. Besides taste, there are other less objective natural qualities that a cook must possess inorder to succeed. The knack, “tour de main”, the instinct and feel, that “je ne sais quoi” that other cooks can spot a mile off, and is usually mixed in with an unbridled passion and zest for life. When its the real thing, its in the blood, always there both in and out of the kitchen.
Besides all the right brain demands, the chef must have strong left brain capacities. While being a dreamer and artist of sorts, he/she must be logical, methodical, practical, business wise, as well as a good manager of time, resources and money.
A good chef is also an honest, conscientious person who cares, who values and respects the ingredients and the people, involved. Diplomacy is indisputably a crucial asset. Although tempermental chefs and playground politics persist in kitchens more than in the rest of the civilized world, it is becoming less acceptable. Most chefs spend their time seeking the elusive balance that is found in a disciplined but positive environment. He/she needs good people skills to survive, as the cook is a team player under pressure.
The chef is an arbitrator, a keeper of the peace and a public relations officer in the constant dealings with staff, suppliers and customers.
Because the cook’s environment is so variable, with umpteen things that can go awry, he/she must be a cool headed problem solver, able to adapt when found short staffed, with malfunctioning equipment, or short of key ingredients. Regardless of circumstances, the cook’s demands and deadlines remain the same day in, day out.
This leads to the obvious necessary attribute of a chef, good health. He/she must be robust and tough. I will always remember a cooking teacher’s first words of advice, “If you are one to get sick or tired easily, then please don’t waste your time, this profession is not for you!” So often, I have noted how true that is with the grueling schedules, the long hours on your feet in inhumanely hot conditions, often without regular breaks to eat or have a sip of water or use the facilities. Not to mention all the cuts and burns and bad backs.
To make it, a cook must not only be thick skinned physically, but strong mentally, and emotionally as well. The kitchen has always been a macho place full of egos, with no room for the weak and whimpery. Working a double shift with a severed digit held together with a quick bandage of paper towel and duct tape without a word is just one of those things you do. Dealing with stress, criticism and unfair scenarios are par for the course. Weakness in any form is scorned, or quickly the fodder for teasing, the cooks’ main source of amusement when the pace slows at all.
Whether it’s in a restaurant kitchen or a hotel or catering, even teaching or in the media, the chef’s job is multi-faceted at its core. In subject matter, it starts with a huge body of knowledge based on history, traditon and science that cooks draw on for guidance and inspiration. This is the structured, absolute, academic basis of cooking. Then there’s the practical side in the form of skills, training and repetition. This element provides the gratification of working with your hands, getting your hands dirty, feeling physcially exhausted and concretely rewarded at the end of the day.
Another major factor is the constant challenge inherent. There’s always more to learn. Plus, the variable, unpredictable nature of the business makes it a constant battle to stay afloat, let alone progress. So the cook is by implication at thrill seeker and a fighter.
The kind of person that is drawn to, and blossoms in this kind of environment is a quirky type no doubt. That’s another story. Suffice to say that cooking as a career values many different sets of skills and qualities, attracting people from all kind of backgrounds, providing all those involved with a broad scope of challenges and stimuli.
The one thing we all have in common more than anything is the bottom line. Cooking is primarily about nourishing people. It’s about giving and simple pleasures. It’s about sharing and celebrating life. For any real cook, that is the beginning and the end. And so, the chef is first and formost a giver, a people’s person, and a lover of life. This is what grounds us and generates the most personal satisfaction.
Along with that comes a feeling that you’re doing something real and good, a part of something greater. That general notion of being connected stems from inputs from the earth, people, and time. We are reminded of our link to the planet on a daily basis through our dependence and our reverence for the fruits of the land in our excitng dance with the weather and seasons. Not all cooks realize this, but it’s an undercurrent.
We come into contact with people of all walks of life through our customers, suppliers, farmers and co-workers. And let me tell you, the restaurant world attracts all kinds of “special” people. Making it work together is another dance. And as we dance our dance every day, feed and restore people, we participate in a ritual common to everyone that lives around the world, and that has lived before us. We do it in a way that is shaped by our predecessors and the current food trends, the tastes of people today. This expression of popular culture marks our place in time, while the dishes and techniques of generations past connects us to them. We keep these stories alive, and make new ones. The cook who is conscious of all this and puts it back into his/her cooking is then also a romantic, one even might say religious, or at least spiritual.
As you can see, the professional chef is a lot of things, and his/her world, although generally removed from the limelight and hazardous to the health, is a supremely interesting, and comforting place.