To be a chef one should…
- …not be an asshole. I struggle with this. When I’m in the middle of a bad service and the waiters seem like terrorists, I often times feel like saying something cutting to brush them back. Waiter X forgets to ring in entrees until his table is about to walk out AND is overheard throwing the kitchen under the bus for the error? It takes every atom in me to not pin Waiter X against the wall, or at the very least throw a whisk full of hot polenta in the general direction of his mouth. Those urges happen in every cook. But part of assembling my mental mise en place is coming up with alternative ways to release that anger. At Chez Philippe, I learned to yell at produce in the walk-in refrigerator. Fucking celery, you asshole…Fennel, you fucking, fucker… After hurling a paring knife at a cocky waiter for making a sour face at my fish special, New York Johnny, the grill cook, hipped me to this technique. Shit talking vegetables is a practice I still employ.
Nowadays though, especially in the midst of this god-awful pandemic, I’m more likely to reboot my brain with mindfulness. A few years ago, I got into Buddhism and specifically mindful meditation. It’s been incredibly helpful to know that I can shut myself down like a computer and come back at a situation without the blue screen of death threatening to derail things. I’m lucky to still be practicing my craft. I realize that in those moments. And if for some reason mindfulness doesn’t work, knowing that Waiter X is getting a shitty tip suffices. Don’t lose it. There are too many repercussions to throwing that whisk full of napalm hot polenta.
- …aspire to be an ensemble player rather than a solo artist. I don’t know what it is about young chefs but there is a definite, industry-wide predisposition for the up and comers to try shove other talent out of the way like Trump at the 2017 NATO summit. I say I don’t know, but I actually do. When I was first banging pots in my own kitchen, I would publicly slag all of the big names in town. Whoever was the media darling of the moment, I would say dumb shit about them to whoever would listen. I even wrote a letter to Memphis Magazine complaining about their “under-researched and overblown hype” surrounding the “Big Three” chefs at the time. I was just another douchebag in a long line of douchebags who uttered, “I’m going to show Memphis to eat.” It’s painful to think about. These days, I’m more interested in forming coalitions, doing collaborative dinners and helping those who I so shortsightedly wrote off. It was me with the problem. I was jealous.
As one food reporter put it to me recently, “You’re a much nicer person than you used to be.” I was shocked. But she was right. In 2019 alone, she wrote five stories on me and filmed a buddy spot in the Caritas kitchen for her newspaper. If I were still in douche-head, that press would have been nonexistent.
The team is always more prolific and efficient than the individual. Allow your cooks to put dishes on the menu (if they’re good). There’s no better way to rescue a crispy cook than to bring them into the fold. Put their name in the description. Give them buy in. Your ego will be just fine, trust me. And if it isn’t, you’re not going to last very long in this marathon life. Solo artists burn out.
Ask your cooks periodically if they’re ok. There’s a lot of bravado on the line and no one wants to look weak. But it’s a stressful gig. Show them you give a shit. So you may get brushed off with a grunt. Quel dommage! You’re supposed to be a general. Generals take care of their grunting soldiers.
- …travel as much as humanly possible. This makes every list and cannot be overstated. You will not become a well-rounded cook if your only culinary inspiration is derived from a hundred-mile radius of your restaurant. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s ok not to want to be a worldly cook. If you’re happy dunking catfish and hushpuppies in your little corner of Mississippi, then do that. But, if you’re strutting around like your shit doesn’t stink, talking culinary philosophy like you’re Escoffier and you’ve never even crossed the border of your home state, you are a snake oil salesman and not a chef. Is that harsh? I don’t think so.
By traveling you’re exposing yourself new flavors and techniques. There is so much good eating and learning in the dining rooms of the world and it’s there for the taking. I’ve stolen most of repertoire not from cooks and chefs in Memphis but from guys like Mike Lata in Charleston, Donald Link in New Orleans, Thomas Keller in California, Katie Button, Jeff Crowder and Benny Shepis in Asheville, Fabio Cappiello and Flavio Faedi in Norcia, Italy. If I hadn’t traveled to Italy specifically, I’d never be able to pull off the real deal Italian regional stuff that I’m doing now at Ciao Italia in Durham, New Hampshire. Get that passport updated and wait for the travel green light like you’re an addict. It will pay off in happy diners and continuing education that will enrich your life.
By traveling far and wide too, you realize that cooks are pretty much the same everywhere. Flavio most definitely gets in the weeds and probably yells at his immaculate Italian produce, Donald Link probably has his least favorite waiter and has to talk himself down from murderous rage. It brings me great comfort to know that I have doppelgangers in other parts of the world who share my odd world views. When you enter into the inner sanctum of cooking, you’re unknowingly joining one of the biggest fraternities the world has ever known. Often, cooking professionally leaves one with a loneliness that only other cooks understand. I’m sure guys who work on oil rigs or deep-sea fishermen get the same sense of melancholy. We are not alone on the cook line. But we do have the great distinction of working for the pleasure of others. When we’re together, a knowing pride surfaces. Because misery loves company, hanging with colleagues around a stove and talking shop is a great salve for a broken heart. It doesn’t matter where in the world you do it. And, if you’re lucky enough to travel abroad and have these experiences, you’ll never be satisfied ripping off the cuisines of the world from your myopic viewpoint in small town U.S.A.
If you’re thinking about retiring in this profession, get that CV polished up, the passport updated and start mapping out your first leap into the great unknown. And send me a thank you letter when you return.
…to be continued…