What does it mean to be a chef? The word's meaning in contemporary terms is in itself a bit murky in meaning. Webster defines the word chef as "a skilled cook who manages a kitchen (as of a restaurant)", derived from the French chef de cuisine or "chief of the kitchen". From here, one can look at what the contemporary use of the French word Chef de Cuisine means, namely the individual who actually runs the day to day operations of a kitchen, while whomever else that has been deemed Executive Chef does something else. Today, one sees chefs testifying before congress regarding regulation on food, proselytizing one country or another's culinary heritage on television, foraging for never heard of before herbs in semi forested areas of the suburbs of cities, growing their own vegetables in picture perfect culinary gardens, and (ahem) writing food blogs. At first, there was chef= lead cook of a brigade. Now, there is chef = cook, restauranteur, businessman,celebrity, lobbyist, forager, farmer, writer, self promoter.
The life of a cook was attractive to me first as a lifestyle, before the cooking itself became the reason that I work as a cook. Wary of mainstream society and culture in my early teens, I became increasingly interested in spending my time away from school and conventional social activities. I entered the restaurant industry at 15, and became enamoured with the anti-social, swash buckling pirate-like delinquency of the people that inhabited the kitchen. Late nights, punk rock, cigarettes and bad behavior were the primary motivating factors in my early professional decisions. Over time, I developed a deep appreciation for the craft of my profession, and a real love for cooking that currently fuels my reason to work as I do. I am not alone in this type of origin story, and I often meet other chefs with similar beginnings.
It is with this in mind that I propose the thought that there is a disparity between what the personality type of a chef typically is: that of an introverted, diligent craftsman who actually prefers toiling endless hours under brutal florescent lights in a windowless room; as opposed to what the current zeitgeist dictates the chef's role to be: the ebullient, always smiling, PR driven, afternoon talk show host ready, jabbering pundit of today. A more disconcerting question to ask is what talent is going unnoticed due to that person's lack of street smarts in the bare knuckle brawl for attention that is today's modern food media? Another concern would be that the more branches a tree grows, the less concentrated the energy of the trunk becomes; chefs might have more tentacles than ever before, yet what does that do to the very heart of the profession, the cooking? With all of the foraging for cattails and edible ants, presentations in Madrid on the lab's findings on the pappyness of foie gras, and the attending of the many award ceremonies the industry now bestowes on itself, when does on find the time to be bothered with it?
I am genuinely grateful that the American public now has ever increasing exposure to what some would term "better living" in food and drink, and I understand that I in turn fare a better chance at being able to continue to make a living cooking as a result of this heightened awareness. Yet, to use the word chef to describe many of our current food personalities of now is at best a touch misleading. The satisfaction of my work, is simply that, the work. It is born out of a desperate need to please, to make people happy, and it is most fulfilled by being by a cutting board or a stove. And if I happen to educate others, change public policy, attract media attention, garner accolades, hock canned soup, or become a better writer by (ahem) writing a psuedo informative blog, great. But I'm still just in it for the food.
*A Happy New Years to all, especially those with the class and good taste to have eaten at L2o in 2012.*