It used to happen every time someone asked what I did for living.
“You’re a chef?” they would reply, their eyes widening. “That’s always been my dream job.”
People love chefs. You could take the laziest, most immoral dirtbag, put him in starched chef’s whites and a tall white chef’s hat and suddenly he’s as huggable as a teddy bear.
There’s an entire sub-culture devoted to worshipping to the world’s second oldest profession. Newspaper columnists titter about which celebrity was seen at which famous chef’s eatery. Ordinary people allow themselves to be humiliated and abused in front of a television audience for the chance to be named “Top Chef”. Bookstore shelves are weighed down with memoirs and favorite recipes of famous chefs.
I myself was first inspired to attend culinary school by watching actual working chefs perform their magic on Saturday afternoon PBS cooking programs.
So what is it about being a chef that captures our imagination? Is it the cold, primal fact that we all must eat to survive, and the person who can make that vital act memorable is therefore special? Could it be because chefs take on an almost maternal role in feeding his or her customers? Or is it simply that most people look better in chef’s whites?
There is no actual regulatory agency that controls who is or isn’t a chef. Cooking schools issue diplomas, but these sheets of paper don’t make you a chef. Believe me, I had many classmates who graduated without mastering the subtleties of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Some trade organizations confer titles to applicants who have completed a battery of tests, and/or a certain number of years in the kitchen, and paid the required fee, but these are not widely recognized in the industry or among the general public.
Anybody with the too much money and too little judgment can rent restaurant space, hire some servers, install a flashy sign, put on the whites and declare him or herself a chef, but they’re not.
So what is a chef? How are they different from everyone else? What skills do they possess that justify the respect and admiration of the general public? Great cooking ability? An excellent palate? Fabulous presentation skills? Efficient production techniques? Innovative recipe development?
The truth: It’s all about the management skills and being savvy enough to stay on top.
Beyond a certain level, most executive chefs do very little actual cooking. Granted, by that point they probably have slaved for years as line cooks on sweaty hot lines, and have mastered every conceivable cooking technique – from broiling to braising, grilling to deep frying. And they almost certainly accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of
meats, vegetables, sauces and starches.
But ask any chef: On a busy Saturday night, if he or she actually has to grill the steaks, or mash the potatoes, or peel the carrots, then something has gone horribly wrong. In a battlefield firefight, would the general grab a rifle and start firing? Same premise.
Chefs typically work their way to the top. After mastering line cooking, they are promoted to sous chef, where they usually have less to do with production and more to do with learning how to manage people and operations effectively.
Finally, as executive chef you are more of a manager than anything else – controlling costs, setting objectives, keeping owners out of everybody’s hair, and continually looking for ways to improve the quality and profitability of the enterprise. In some cases, the chef is also the owner of the restaurant. But in most cases, the chef is a salaried employee reporting to private or corporate owners.
While anyone can sign up for culinary school and be taught the technical skills of cooking food, being the chef requires boundless enthusiasm and passion for the product; the ability to withstand constant scrutiny and second-guessing by owners and employees; criticism from guests; and the organizational skills to keep a hundred moving parts working in unison.
Still interested? Here are some things would-be chefs should keep in mind:
You have to love what you do. If you’re going to work long hours in a hot, crowded environment around dangerous machinery and sinister people with knives, you better love going to work every day. In my opinion, this is the easy part. Although kitchens are some of the worst of all working conditions, the feeling of family that invariably develops among people who work so hard and at such close quarters is usually the most rewarding and nurturing anywhere.
People are going to steal from you, both your employees and your customers. There’s a classic scene in the movie “Big Night” where the chef invites a veteran line cook to join him for a drink at the bar, then stabs him in the leg with a steak knife, only to reveal that the employee was trying to steal steaks by tying them to his thighs. This kind of thng actually happens. A lot.
Not everyone is going to be happy. No matter how great your lasagna recipe is,
someone’s mother’s lasagna is always going to be better than yours (even if it isn’t). Deal with it. Also, most people don’t know the difference between rare, medium and well done, even if you explain it to them verbally, or with pictures, flow charts and a power point presentation.
It’s always your fault. You’re the boss, so the buck stops with you. Once, when I was chef in a Gary, Indiana, casino, the head dishwasher called off on a busy night because he had been shot (!). Later, when the dish station was piled to the ceiling with dirty dishes, pots and pans, who did the Food & Beverage Director accuse of running a messy kitchen? One guess.
Not everything is going to work as planned. Thought a salmon mousse would work served in a martini glass drizzled with a candy apple glaze and a chocolate cigarette? Guess again.
The customer is always right. How many times have you heard that old chestnut? Well, guess what? The customer is almost never right. Most of the time, the customer has no idea what they are talking about and only like to jabber on because they like the sound of their own voice. Still, given the dynamic of the business relationship, as chef you have to stand there and take it, even though in your mind you actually are picturing that person’s slow torture.
Being a chef requires good management habits, a thick skin, and a lot of knowledge and experience. You have to fail a hundred times before you can succeed consistently. And even then, someone under you is occasionally going to drop the ball. And it will be your fault.
So, when someone says they always dreamed of being a chef, it always makes me chuckle.