The C-Words(s): Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen

Chef Lyfe

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

“Esse Quam Videri” – To be rather than appear.

A couple occurrences gave rise to this week’s post – a serendipitous confluence of events. The first was awhile ago when I was hanging out back of house at a buddy of mine’s shop. He has a solid prep crew – a lot of hard working veterans with a few poopy, lazy millennials thrown in – but, overall, a pretty productive and cohesive team. I was jawing with one of the prep cooks, talking shop and just generally checking in about the state of the workplace when she remarked, “There are too many Chefs and not enough cooks.” Food for thought indeed.

The next was writing a bio for a fellow Chef. I do a few stray ones here and there as a favor, finding them a bit pedantic at times so, generally, avoid the task. When I do decide to jump in, I usually talk not only about the where and what of their career but also the why. The weltanschauung that makes them who they are as a Chef. During the course of scribing said exposition I reflected on the previously mentioned comment as I plied my trade, perhaps getting a little obtuse about the nature of what we do in the practice of our craft. I stated, in regard to my compatriot, that “The restaurant world breaks everyone and the beauty lies in handling the grace of being broken.” Maybe a little Hemmingway-esque (sorry Papa) but also true and, also, food for thought.

The last was an exchange with another fellow kitchen warrior, one whom I respect immensely. We were having a lively email conversation about some of the less attractive aspects of what we do (the business side) when he quite eloquently, and in the most simple terms, stated, “Very few people really know the definition of Chef anymore.” I couldn’t agree more. And the process by which anyone acquires this dubious title can be as intangible as words written on water.

Let me speak to my experience. First off, I never asked for the badge – not even once. I got it handed to me like a side order of hashbrowns. I’ve cooked since I was a kid and have worked in The Biz on and off for decades but always considered myself a cook first and foremost. Several years ago I landed a full-page spread in a well-regarded South County rag where they proclaimed like a carnival barker – “CHEF MAU IS THE CULTURE OF COOL – PERSONIFIED.” “Okay,” said I. “Sweet. Guess I’m a Chef now.” 

I’m still not always comfortable with the word but it’s good for my career and professional standing so I won’t protest too much. But let’s get something straight. I’m not much of a Chef in the traditional sense but can be pretty handy at times. I never went to culinary school, have never, ever even once Sous Vide’d ANYTHING (and don’t plan on starting now) and may or may not know the difference between a large radish and a small turnip.

However, need to figure out a resupply via helicopter in the Sierra High Country? I’m your guy. Get a call to feed 300 people Cuban food with less than 24 hours notice? Handled. Want to hear about the sixteen different permutations of the Great American Cobb Salad? Let’s have a coffee. I may not have the classics like pate or ratatouille figured out but I’ll stack my tri-tip, Basque cuisine or any regional Mexican/Mediterranean up against anyone. My days as a grinding line cook are over but I also don’t start freaking out unless the building is on fire and many of my cohorts should learn that lesson too. Mostly I want my spirit as a Chef to be like an empty space; a void that’s waiting to be filled – that’s where inspiration comes from. I also embrace knowing nothing. Nothing at all. It means I’m learning.

So, if I got stuck with this unsolicited handle, what makes me a Chef? What makes anyone a Chef? Or (dare I say) “just” a cook? And what’s the difference, in a spiritual and physical sense, between the two? Let’s break it down.

Oh the fun you’ll have…..

Cooks don’t necessarily have it easy but to them it’s more or less just a job. When and if they get sick of their occupation, they might gleefully change course and become retail clerks, pool guys, secretaries, or whatever. They don’t have any spiritual or otherworldly connection to what they do. When they get off work they have time to connect with their kids, smoke weed and play video games or otherwise enjoy what could be termed the life of a normal person. With very few exceptions do they lay awake at night thinking about what they’re gonna make the next day, much less whether or not the produce order came in, if your fish from Hawaii will be at LAX and if everything else you need landed onsite like it had to. By no measure does that mean they don’t take pride in their work, but it’s just that: Work. And work means it’s something you do to pay the bills, not because it’s an inner part of who you are as a human being.

Cooks are, however, the ones you can count on to show up and do their job without a lot of foppishness and nonsense. They’ll execute whatever recipe you ask of them without it personally affronting their aesthetic in any sense and that is a plus. There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of unnecessary feedback from some fresh-out-of-culinary-school jackass who thinks they have it all figured out but really couldn’t find their own ass if it was already attached to their hands. Especially when all you need is a few tomatoes sliced up. These unsung heroes of the kitchen make the lives of Chefs easier by putting our lunacy into action and making the product hit the table. A good “cook” in the restaurant sense is akin to a candy machine; you know exactly what you are gonna get when you put that coin in. Surprises are an all too common vexation in The Biz and the fewer you have to contend with the better your day is going to be, believe me. A proper cook is like any other artisan, say your favorite cabinetmaker or plumber. They have the nuts and bolts of the execution down to a fine science and what they may lack in obtuse creative dynamics is more than made up for in no-nonsense kitchen surefootedness. Just watch the line cooks at a busy breakfast joint churn out plate after plate and tell me that’s not finesse.

The Line

Chefs are a different beast, however. Even the most down to earth of us (including me) can be dandyish, persnickety, volatile, needy, and just plain ‘ol pains in the ass. We attach ourselves to and define ourselves by our vocation to a fault. Chefs are ruminating on their craft in the back of their minds the overwhelming majority of time and it can consume them like some sort of delicious cancer. It gnaws at us in the quiet moments of the night and plies its bittersweet poison so gracefully we ‘narent even know our own supplication to its wiles until it’s too late. It creeps from our core to fingertips in a most wraith-like manner, executing the tonality of its spark from pan to plate. Our abode is extant in the sonnet of the kitchen, the devotional of the knife, and in the transcendent moments we crave. Ones that rock you to the core like your first backseat escapade.

Chefs also don’t do what they do to be cool or impress people, not real ones at least. They do it because they can’t help it. That’s why Chefs are born – not made. Period. They are consumed by food as opposed to the other way around. Chefs, like most artists (just ask Sir Paul McCartney) execute their passion in their dreams. I remember the first time I dreamt a recipe and it freaked me right the fuck out. In particular, Executive Chefs are leaders like presidents. You may not agree with or even respect them but they are the Chef. I’m not a brigade system guy. The hierarchy can be a little archaic, but the one thing I do agree with is that you always stand behind your Chef – he’s the boss and, if you don’t like it, find another shop.

The irony is that for most great Chefs, at least in my experience, their actual cooking is the least interesting part of their lives. The good ones are into some weird, esoteric pastime to take their minds off things and, if you want to see some quirky ones, just ask around. They’ll do anything to be distracted and the more obscure and energy-consuming the better.

In the culinary world there are many mirages. Some simple and direct, others harder to peer into. Chefs, in particular, suffer from a spiritual version of this malady, sometimes losing track of their calling by letting ego get in the way. To be truly great at what we do requires a Chef to be subservient. To their cuisine, mindset and circumstance. Understanding that there are no absolutes and perfection is the enemy of excellence. That, without our cohorts on the line doing the heavy lifting, we Chefs would be all but dead in the water.

The long and short of it is this – being a Chef sucks at times and that’s when you know you are one. It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of it or desire to excel. It does mean that you are bound to it like a slave chained in hull of a Roman warship pulling that oar purposefully towards your own demise. Doing what we do is almost like an addict that can’t put down that crack pipe no matter what it does to their lives or psyches. So be careful of what you wish for aspiring Chefs – you just might get it.

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