Again, much has been written on this subject. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, then you know that Cheffing Ain’t Easy. Hopefully, you scroll right by anything that bemoans The Life. They’re old and tired, the overly romanticized ten worst parts about being a chef lists.
I’m far more interested in the Chef’s Table stories. If you haven’t watched the Netflix series, I suggest you do. The premise is simple; famous chefs recount the things that drew them to life and recount the setbacks or missteps that threatened to derail them on their journey to inner peace. We find out that, invariably, success in the restaurant industry is tied to some kind of recognition of self. The series is incredibly impactful. I suggest watching Massimo Bottura’s episode first. After laughing your way through it, you’ll have a new respect for the love and intestinal fortitude it takes to run one’s own high-end kitchen and reach multi-star status. I’m interested in these inspirational stories far more than the “you’re working when normal people aren’t” retreads on social media.
You’ve probably seen that irritating meme of two cooks sitting on milk crates shoveling gruel into their faces? The reaction you’re supposed to have is one of pity. Aww, look at those poor dudes; working so hard they can’t even sit in the dining room. And anger. Fuck that chef for treating those fine boys like inmates. Do you want to know what I see? I see two infantry troops fueling up before a battle. I see the kitchen behind them, a gleaming Thunderdome of working equipment that any James Beard award winning chef would be proud to call their own. I don’t see a damn thing to pity. Those guys are living the pimp life and are probably noshing on something far more delicious than you or I will ever eat.
Cooking professionally is a career choice that, even at the top of the game, with shows, book deals or product lines in high end grocery stores, yields very little in the way of tangible reward. Just ask your favorite local hero. You know, the guy who everyone on social media fawns over? Ask him if he’s able to afford a fancy car or Caribbean vacations. Chances are, he’s driving the same car and vacationing in the same places as the kid who chucks his signature spice blend into plastic bags at the supermarket. The margins are far too thin in restaurants for a Mercedes or helicopter rides around Monserrat. For every globe-trotting Eric Ripert or Tom Collichio, there are a hundred thousand jealous Marriott chefs driving cars that pre-date the changing of the millennium.
You may wonder why your local hero spends sixty hours a week on cement floors coddling grownups and dealing with the ridiculousness of restaurant work. Let me tell you why he does it. If Mr. Famous Chef X has any kind of tenure in the industry, he’s doing It because he loves it. Because the idea of sitting in a cubicle and punching keys for a living is a frightening prospect. He’s doing it because he’s heard on a consistent basic how incredible he is by his customers. The allure of instant gratification can’t be overstated. It’s one of the greatest perks a good chef can get.
All that’s great. But this piece isn’t about the why’s of choosing the career; it’s about the mindset, resume and tenacity one needs to possess to be considered a chef by one’s peers. After all, who better than a tenured chef to assess viability as a professional culinarian.
Maybe all of this is navel gazing and matters not. But I’m an opinionated sonofabitch and have a little insight. Take the following list with a grain of Himalayan sea salt.
To be considered a chef, one should:
- …lust after food. Simple, right? It seems like a job requirement that one possesses a preternatural compulsion to fondle produce, sniff fish, await the changing of the seasons like a longing lover. You should also, as a chef, have the urge to throw imperfect plates of food against the wall (but not the follow through), haggle with farmers and seek out great ingredients like you’re panning for gold. You should consider world travel professional research and the foods you discover along the way, sacred. Do you know how many “chefs” I’ve run across who couldn’t give a shit about food? A lot. Just recently, I took over for a chef who couldn’t take Restaurant X to the next level and got fired. When I asked one of my inherited cooks if Chef X loved food, he smushed his face up and said, “I never really thought about it.” That’s as damning as saying no, to me. Anyone who’s ever been in my vicinity when I’m cooking knows the answer to that question. My love for cooking and good food is borderline obsessive. There’s no way, save from a full-frontal lobotomy, that I could tame the culinary fire within. All good chefs exhibit the same mania.
- …be curious. Some restaurant chefs just don’t progress. For whatever reason, there are practitioners out there who have been cooking the same tired dishes their entire careers and are completely satisfied. They’ll tell you they’re giving their customers what they want but really, to me what they’re saying is, I’m not interested in progressing. One should never be satisfied by one’s own knowledge in any field. The curious chef is typically more successful than the comfortable chef and is definitely a more viable candidate for a precious Beard Awards. Cooking shouldn’t be a rote affair. To quote Julia Child, “…it (cooking) should be entered into with reckless abandon, or not at all.” Try the trendy but invasive species of fish, the pig eyeball, the nasty bits of flesh and cartilage in lurking in that bowl of Vietnamese Pho. Travel, probe, get out of your comfort zone. The only way you’re going to become a good chef is to table the chicken Alfredo and surf and turf and allow your natural curiosity to run wild. Now, if you’re not a curious person, there’s very little hope for you in the upper echelons of gastronomy. If you don’t care about what’s around the corner, then you should really consider that cubicle life.
…to be continued.