Friday, June 27, 2014

Chef Philosophy, 101

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 8th, 2013

There are as many philosophies about food and cooking as there are items on the Cheesecake Factory’s menu. Locavores, pescatarians, vegans, raw foodists all have their mantras, just as junk-foodies lick their orange fingers after finishing a bag of Cheezy Credos.  Restaurants exist to feed this diverse audience, a spectrum of people too tired to cook, those who are celebrating, those who read about the fried pig face in Seattle’s free weekly and simply MUST try it, and those who eat only sesame seeds mixed with fireweed honey and kale.
On the other side of the kitchen door, we have the people actually making the food, who labor in conditions similar to foundries and salt mines, who somehow manage the Sisyphean nature of restaurant cooking with aplomb (mild aplomb. Sometimes rage). Fries into the basket, basket into the oil, fries into the bowl, fries onto the plate. Repeat until you die. Don’t forget the salt.
As so many aspects of restaurant work resemble pushing a boulder up a hill, the conclusion drawn by Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus is comforting, in a peculiarly French way. He wrote, “It is the struggle itself….one must believe Sisyphus is happy.” I had heard a different translation (I think in the movie “Party Girl”) that used the word “content,” but either way, the implication that the endless struggle to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, or cook sliders in the low, dark purgatory of Happy Hour, is in some way fulfilling, despite (or because of) the futility.

(The French are always comforting us in kitchens: the smell of shallots and thyme simmering in butter, a bouquet garni infusing a stock with bay, thyme and parsley, the way sauces bound by liaison have a fuller, richer flavor than those thickened by cream alone…)

Camus’s conclusion may explain why cooks stay on the line instead of working in the Front of House, where they would make three times the money – there are less existential reasons to stay in the kitchen, most of them related to temperament and alcohol intake – but line cooks are, by and large, a proud folk, not necessarily happy, but scarred, burned, marked and fulfilled in some way by work that barely pays the rent. If a line cook becomes restless with his or her particular boulder-hill combo, he or she can go into management, a career move bringing them closer to the real Sisyphus, as all accounts of the original have him down as a bit of a hubristic jerk, which is so much more like a Chef than a Cook.

There are Chefs who bully, threaten, yell, stomp, rule by fear rather than love. There are those who coddle their cooks, who serve them mint tea with honey during service. (Not really.) The philosophy behind the behavior of the angry Chef goes so much farther than simply being narcissistic outbursts, or exhibitionist stylings of a coward who is in so far over his head that he must resort to scaring the men and women who work near him. The truly great, scary Chefs are like that because they are in pursuit of the sublime, the moment when plating is finished, garnishes placed, and Beauty, impermanent, fragile, meant-to-be-devoured Beauty, looks back at them from the plate. The pursuit of this particular venaison blanc requires a team of lean, fast, line dogs, who love the taste of the hunt more than the security of health insurance or IRAs. The pursuit of excellence requires very high standards and no small measure of ferocity. One bad Yelp, one spawning oyster, and suddenly the table is tipped onto the floor of mediocrity. Excellence is the quarry for all Chefs, but the angry ones tend to get the most press.

My Chef philosophy rests as much with the public as it does on the shoulders of the cooks. We are not there to gallop across the countryside for ourselves. We are here to feed the others, the ones who chose us for the moments in their lives, the birthdays, anniversaries, idle Tuesdays, or sorrowful Saturdays. The moment a diner walks through the door, they have decided to include us, a gang of tattooed strangers, in their very lives. To me, that inclusion is a gift of astonishing worth, a jewel worth hunting for, and instead of devouring the prize, tearing apart the stag, and lifting bloodstained muzzles to the moon and howling (with whiskey in hand), I’ve tried to teach the cooks a philosophy that looks out to the dining room, toward a calmer, more sustainable quest for excellence, a sense of contentment. Next thing you know, I’ll be brewing minted tea.

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