Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Chef" as we know it.

I hope that those of you who have worked with me in a busy professional kitchen would say that I am, above all else, professional. That is to say that I take a tremendous amount of pride in the field of work which I have chosen.
Sure, like most in such a setting, sometimes I may say some things that to an outsider would be grounds for a H.R. manager to take a strip off of myself or anyone else who is in earshot. However, that is just par for the course. Being crude, crass, ignorant, belligerent, condescending, or god forbid, questioning, just so happens to be the world in which we dwell.
All of this sits just fine with me given the right atmosphere. When it is busy, and as we say, 'are in the shit' there is nothing and I do mean nothing that can't be said and then forgotten almost instantly. It is a survival technique. I am sorry to say that most of us thrive on this atmosphere. That is why we do what we do.
With that being said, If that is the professionalism that we exist in, then there is a reason that we cook behind closed doors. There must be a reason why we all dress in sparkling white coats and come to work clean shaven and wear silly hats that make people smile.
It is to provide an illusion to the customer. It was intended to make the nice couple coming to the carving station at the buffet to feel a calming, to set them at ease knowing that the person cooking there food is a "chef". A chef is someone who knows all there is to know about food. From a guests perspective a chef is like going to the doctor when your sick. The customer has learned to trust the coat and the hat more than the food on the plate. Anyone can put on a white coat, embroider their name on the breast, put a flag on the collar and a fancy restaurant emblem on the sleeve and call themselves a chef. And guess what, the general public will believe them. Why? Because we taught them too. We("chefs") knew a long time ago that we and the people that we work with were not the all knowing supreme beings that we need to be in order to sell people food. Why do doctors all wear white coats, because we trust it.
Thankfully, food is changing. Well, lets go a step further and say that food has changed. It has. Most "Chefs" have no idea where there food has come from, what it was sprayed with, what it was spliced with in order to stay "consistent". So, scratch that previous thankfully and let me insert a new one here. Food can be brought back. It can be sold to people, they will buy it. However, and I know this will be a hard pill for some of you to swallow, in order to sell it we must kill the "chef". We all need to just be "cooks". Remember that, when you were just a cook. When you knew that you had so much to learn and so many skills to master. What a feeling it was.
I have been getting that feeling back. I have spent my whole two days off, after cooking lunch for 700 people in 3 days, making bread and cheese. Why, because I am a cook. I am not a chef. The title seems to instill in people a sense of ownership. Of having the knowledge that other people don't. I don't want to sell food to people because they trust my white coat with a name on it. I want to sell food to people because I poured my heat and soul into it. I am clean, I am organized, I am all the things that people call "chef". I've got the papers to prove it. Oh, no wait. Those papers say "professional COOK". If the food industry is going to survive when those trucks inevitably stop running, we will have to stop hiding behind swinging doors, silly hats, and white jackets with our names on them. Believe me. I will always be more comfortable sitting at a table watching my cook prepare my food through an open kitchen, wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt and cammo shorts, than eating at a restaurant with white table cloths and a swinging door...always. With that being said, I will most likely always wear a white coat but that doesn't mean that I should instantly be trusted. Perhaps the only ones that should wear whites are the ones who are willing to get them dirty.
The food has to start taking the main stage again, not the person or people who cook it. I want to be able to walk into a restaurant in the next five years and see people who love what they do actually doing it. If what you love to do is serve local food that you or someone you know grew, do it out in the open. But local can and should mean so much more. We can sell anything. If we think that we are good enough to put names on jackets, faces in magazines, on television, or yes like right here, the internet, then shouldn't we be able to cook and sell the whole cow. Or have we gotten better at selling ourselves than the food?
Like the cheesy saying goes, "if you build it they will come". If we as cooks, not chefs with names, but cooks as cooks work together to learn from one another we can change the way the game is played. A good friend and fellow contributor to this site had a very good idea the other day that I would like to share with you, and hopefully he will elaborate on later. What if, and hear me out on this. What if, instead of having a monthly meeting in which we all come together to eat a cheap meal and pat one another on the back about what a great job we are all doing, we raised our dues a little, put our meetings aside for a while and saved up. Maybe did a couple of fund raisers, until we had enough money to take out a loan on a piece of land. And on that land we built a small kitchen with room for growth. With say like a meat locker and everything that one would need to do some serious preserving of fruits and vegetables. What if we could grow some things on the piece of land that we could then preserve. The time to return to a co-op mentality is coming fast and guess what? It works.
So, now that I have ranted and raved all over the map. Can I just say that regardless of what your jacket does or doesn't say, I love you. I really do. All of you who really do love to cook, it's not really our fault. It's how we were brought up. It's how our chefs were brought up. That doesn't mean that we can't change the way we do things. It would be great if we could all remember that we are just cooks and it's only food and none of us and I do mean none of us should be seen as idles, we are merely disciples spreading the good word of food. Worship the food, not the cook.


  1. Not to bring up the antagonism between use value and exchange value this early in the morning, but...

    46. Exchange value could only have arisen as the proxy of use value, but the victory it eventually won with its own weapons created the preconditions for its establishment as an autonomous power. By activating all human use value and monopolizing that value's fulfillment, exchange value eventually gained the upper hand. The process of exchange became indistinguishable from any conceivable utility, thereby placing use value at its mercy. Starting out as the condottiere (think privatemilitary.org) of use value, exchange value ended up waging a war that was entirely its own.

    Thus spracht Guy Debord

    Speaking of low use value, and even lower exhange value, I'd like to see "placement" on the use value/exchange value continuum as the final word in "criticism". For example

    "Resaurant X is 3.5% use value and 96.5% exchange value...those who love embroidery, starch and giving the credit card a good work out should eat here"


    "Restaurant Y is 92% use value and 8% exchange value...those who aren't afraid of organ meat and don't mind a cut off Iron Maiden tee-shirt should have a good time."

  2. I was just reading an article that I think relates to this topic to a degree. In terms of living off the land, "practicing what you preach" and what not:

    "If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient. These communities will have to build walls against electronic propaganda and fear that will be pumped out over the airwaves. Canada will probably be a more hospitable place to do this than the United States, given America's strong undercurrent of violence. But in any country, those who survive will need isolated areas of land as well as distance from urban areas, which will see the food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, leach out across the urban landscape as produce and goods become prohibitively expensive and state repression becomes harder and harder..." -Chris Hedges

    I realize that this doesn't seem to link up to the restaurant industry directly
    however, is it not our duty as cooks/lovers of food and life to take initiative and start moving forward in this direction?
    Having restaurants on farm land, be involved directly with farms, don't rely on fossil fuels (that goes for sysco, neptune, etc)
    instead rely on yourself and your local community.
    No Chefs, no titles, just community.
    we would just be going back to what is natural, pure and what life is based upon...survival. People used to work to live not live to work.

  3. Its strange that you finished with "people use to work to live, not live to work" in recent times people are working 2-3 times as much as people did in the 1600s, yet in modern mans words, life is getting "more convienient" with convience food, your laptop/cellphone/ipod/camera/GPS/universal remote control/newspaper.... you get it device, how IS it that life is convienient?
    i was in a discussion the other day with my room mate as she prepared dinner, something simple fast, and essentially "substanance" i asked her if she ever thinks about dinner the day before, or 2 days in advance? she said she doesnt have time.
    time is a valuable commodity.
    if we all lived in community, local and such, would that increase time for the inner foodies to come forth? would people have more block parties next saturday? would you have friends over on friday for that amazing batch of ribs and buns you made on wednesday?

  4. Absolutely they would. It is the technology that we were told would make life simpler that has in fact made life one perpetual work day. Cell phones, blackberries and now I-Pads have made it nearly impossible for people to escape work let alone stop ringing or beeping long enough to make dinner. I can't count the number of times I've looked into a dinning room to see someone at a table talking or texting during dinner. I just find it hard to believe how easily we as a global community fell into this trap. Soon enough though people will start to migrate back to the ways of our parents childhoods, maybe by choice but most likely because they are out of work. As the unemployment rate goes up family life will return. Imagine if only one person in every household had to work. Then will be the time of the block parties and spit roasts.