I Sometimes Wish We Chefs Weren’t So Cool

If chefs weren’t so cool, we’d have better food.

When I was eight years old I got cooking equipment for Christmas.  Not kid’s toys, but real kitchen utensils, pots, and pans.  I had decided very early in life that I wanted to be a chef and  decided late in life that I would actually be a chef.

When I was eight I had no idea what becoming a chef meant, what it entailed, and how to perform as a chef.  Of course, there aren’t too many eight-year-olds with dreams of becoming something who have much of a clue what’s involved with getting to their goal.

I really didn’t find out what becoming a chef required until I was 35.  No, it didn’t take me that long in the business to finally figure it out.  Aside from a spring semester and summer away from school working at Mike’s Pizza Adobe in Schenectady, I did not work in a restaurant until my mid-thirties.

When I was eight, when I was getting to the end of high school, or even when I was working my first kitchen job with the strong encouragement from the Dean of Academic Affairs at Siena, becoming a chef was not only misunderstood, it was seen as a waste life of by some people very close to me.  I returned to Siena for the my junior year of cross country with some “administrative help” and immediately decided I wanted to go to The Culinary Institute instead.  I was discouraged from throwing away my education to go sling hash.  That was the climate in the early eighties.  Being a cook just wasn’t cool back then.

I wanted to be a chef for the right reasons.  I had a real curiosity and love for food and really liked cooking despite not being exposed to the culinary world and its treasures as a kid.

Today it seems that too many cooks who consider themselves chefs want to be chefs for the wrong reasons.  Thanks to the Food Network and other entertainment and social media outlets that followed, we’re now in an era where too many young men and women want to be chefs as an easy way to become stars.

The problem is they’re not learning how to cook at a fundamental level.  Learning to cook is not their main concern.  Learning to cook cool dishes with cool ingredients is their main concern.

Some cooks know how to cook.  Some cooks know how to cook what they know how to cook.

What’s the difference?  Well, once you develop good cooking techniques and habits, the ingredients become almost irrelevant.  What I mean by that is that a good cook should be able to switch ingredients in and out of one technique without relearning a new cooking method.

In recent years I’ve run into too many cooks who learn to make specific dishes in various restaurants or they develop dishes on their own and stick with them because they know how to make them.  Ask them to make a different dish using the same techniques and it’s like starting from scratch.  Why?  Because cooks aren’t learning basic cooking methods first.

If I teach a cook how to pan roast an airline chicken breast, he or she should then have a pretty good idea how to pan roast a lamb rack or veal chop.  The method is the same even as we switch out the protein and spice profile.

I don’t know why culinary programs or chefs with new cooks aren’t teaching this, but it’s time they started.  Better yet, it’s time many young (and not so young) cooks stop trying to be cool, stop trying to get on Chopped, and stop trying to become social media stars.  Learn to cook first, learn to work in a professional kitchen, and pay attention to your profession rather than wanting the profession to pay attention to you.

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