The Walking, Talking, Pan-flipping Contradiction
By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
Although the professional cook’s image is changing somewhat in the age of celebrity chefdom, the cook is largely a blue-collar worker, a survivor among the dreggs of society, the best of the poor misfits. At the same time, a cook at any level, is privy to a degree of admiration and glory, and is surrounded by all the elements of the good life. He is exposed to the finest ingredients of luxury from around the world. In his line of work, he has the privilege to sample the most rare delicacies, taste vintage wines, eat off silverware, brush shoulders with the rich and famous.
By association, the lowly restaurant worker finds himself in a world of well to do people, the movers, the shakers, the aristocrats, and the epicures. He can easily come to feel a part of that world, however deluded the notion is. He has involuntarily developed a discriminating palate to match, a taste for the finer things in life. But then, he goes home to his dive, peanut butter in the fridge (if he is one of the grounded few) and is reminded of the big picture and his place in it.
He might be content, or he might feel a little frustrated and resentful. Others carry on the charade, stocking caviar, truffle oil, fleur de sel, every variety of specialty vinegar, oil and condiment, and inevitably a negative bank account, because cooks don’t earn much.
Restaurant workers are a segment of the population notorious for living beyond their means. They work so hard; they figure they deserve it. They go out, live the high life, dropping insensible amounts of money on food and wine because they value these indulgences, whether they can afford them or not. Few other mortals would conceive of spending half a weeks’s pay on a tasting menu.
A cook in a high-end restaurant is egged along this inevitable tortuous path not only by his acquired tastes, but also by the compounding delusionary effect of his ego. Prone to ego stroking by nature, on top of the natural feeling of accomplishment that accompanies surviving a day in the kitchen, the cook easily fells elevated, on a power trip as the provider of your pleasure.
Boosted by testosterone and the bonding camaraderie of the kitchen, he feels like a king. Master of sharp utensils, a hazardously hot, stressful environment, master problem solver, he can do it all. He can even spit into your dish if he feels like it. Waiters, suppliers, customers, everyone wants to be his friend. This breeds an exalted feeling, the gateway to delusion. It is so easy for him to forget that he is at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, no money in the bank, with no benefits or security.
In a heartbeat, the bubble can be burst, and the regal thoughts become a distant pipe dream. All it takes is a mis-step and a good verbal lashing by the chef, he wakes up to find himself humiliated, covered in grease, sweat drenched and thirsty. He is sore from exhaustion, all of a sudden, feeling his latest battle scars, the cuts and burns. He realizes he hasn’t had a sip of water in hours, hasn’t had a meal or been to the washroom since he left home that morning, and he hasn’t had a vacation in years. He momentarily wants out of this hell, but he curses his sorrows away and perserveres out of pride. He knows deep down that these brutal lows are matched by the sweet highs of working the line, of feeling that magic.
Akin to being a part of an orchestra or a sports team struggling for the title, a cook gives everything he’s got for the team, rides the ups and downs for a taste of that intangible beauty of a seamless shift where it all works. A smooth execution with no hitches that aren’t swiftly and cleverly corrected, where in the night long dance, no one steps on each others’ toes, when it all comes together in a cohesive, magical way to a standing ovation and lots of beer.
On another night, despite all the hard work and good intentions of a crew, it can all fall apart due to an electrical problem, a breakdown in communication, human error or countless other variables. Or dreadedly, for some reason, a customer is dissatisfied and returns a plate. Whether it is a customer’s unreasonable demands or a plain fuck-up, the slogan of the customer always being right comes to haunt. The cooks shit their pants, but it is the chef, ultimately responsible, who has to stand up. He might be left baffled, angry, whipped, defeated. But being someone who is primarily out to please and at the mercy of accounts payable, he will acquiesce, do whatever he can to solve the problem. The cooks are mad or scared, he has to be a leader. He swallows his pride and steps down to the level of mere service provider, stripped of his knowledge, hard work and talent in one fell swoop, he just has to please. On a bad day, it might make him question everything, is it really worth it?
The moment passes, the night ends, and either a compliment or a glass of good wine helps wash away the day’s grievances. Soon enough, he is happily back in the precarious position of balancing the harsh reality and sweet fantasy of kitchen life, living the contradiction of being a star and a humble slave to the stove, his brigade behind him, an army of other star/ slaves bred to be walking, talking, pan-flipping contradictions.