The Measure Of A Chef

Not long ago I received an email from someone asking for my help with admission to culinary school.  I did this for someone last year, and about 8 months in he dropped out and came back home to rethink his life’s ambition.  To be a chef is no longer in the equation.  I can’t tell you how many of my CIA classmates (circa 1990) either dropped out or graduated and are no longer associated with food.  I can’t tell you because I can’t remember, and I haven’t done a great job of keeping in touch…but there are many.

I can tell you that I’ve second guessed my career many times since graduating from the world’s greatest culinary learning institution–and probably will again before it’s all over.  It’s not easy what we do, and that is exactly what I’ve shared with every young person who has asked for my advice or endorsement, including the most recent one.

When I started in this business I worked in fine dining restaurants alongside fellow cooks and professional waiters who were passionate about what we do.  We lived for the fun of food and cooking!  We played “culinary trivia” during prep time, asking and answering food questions and learning from one another.  We listened to music to set the mood and keep up the prep tempo until the front doors were unlocked.  We developed a camaraderie that somehow overcame all barriers of race, culture, sexual identity, religion, handicap, language, or gender–and we made fun of every single one of them.  Nothing was off limits and nothing was sacred, except food.

We broke bread together, we went out behind the dumpster and had a pre-service joint, we went out to the bar at the end of the evening to celebrate the night’s success, or to heal the wounds from careless words and heat-of-the-moment tempers.  By the time we got to the bar the only ones left were the other restaurant people in town and the really hardcore drunks (sometimes they were the same people).

If we couldn’t take home a waitress from our own restaurant we’d work on a bartender, and if that didn’t work we’d take home anyone that would go.  When the bar closed there was the all-night diner, and then stumble home with one eye closed to ward off the double-vision.  Then we’d tumble into bed tired, drunk, smelly, burnt, cut and bleeding, and glad we made it through another night.

Next morning there was coffee and cigarettes and suit up for another day of the same.  This goes on for at least six days and as many as 10 or 15 before a coveted day off when we could finally take care of various bits of personal business and pay the past due bills.  But we pressed on!  Rarely did anyone call in sick, but every now and then somebody didn’t make it back from the party the night before and the boss would call and ask you to come in on your day off or work a double.  Some days my primary motivation for showing up was just to see what happened next.

I would wake up in the morning and instantly start arranging my mis en place for the day in my head.  On the way to work I’d listen to a Dead tape (as in cassette) and think up the specials for that night.  I might have read a bit in Bon Appetit or Food Arts over breakfast and been inspired, or I might have perused Escoffier for a new potato dish.  It was the life–the only life for a guy like me.  It was love and sex and art and beauty and lust and soul.  One could experience every human emotion in a single day in a kitchen, and go home happy, sad, angry, or elated–but seldom satisfied.

Back then there were no cell phones and no fucking Food Network!  You came to work and you worked, and you got your ideas from the world around you and your own creativity, or from working with other chefs, eating out, and the occasional cookbook or food magazine.  If something happened at home or one of your friends did something fun you found out about it when you got home.  There was no goddamned Facebook status update.  You were in your own world and you stayed there until every guest had gotten 100% of you.  Then and only then were you allowed to venture out into the world and find out what had happened in the last 12 hours.

Now, we did have a radio and a small TV in the kitchen.  I watched the OJ Simpson chase (and the trial that followed) during prep time for what seemed like a whole menu season.  We watched the Gulf War in the kitchen.  I was behind the stove when I heard that Jerry Garcia died.  I was prepping for a Monday catering event on Sunday night when Mom called and said that my father had passed away.  I paused for a moment of quiet reflection, and then I ordered a pizza and continued working.  If I didn’t there would be no Monday event.

Two chef friends came to offer their support at the funeral (both wearing their whites), and I was back at work 2 hours later where my sous chef had been keeping things going until I could get there.

Today if someone dies in the little town I live in it seems like half the staff asks off for the funeral.  I’ve had to say no to several staff once just to keep the doors open.  People take off a week because of a cold.  Cell phones ring constantly and chime with text messages alerting my staff of every little thing that’s happening out in the real world.  Much of our staff is actually “present” to focus on work for about 12% of the day.

Half of the staff wants to know what they’re gonna get besides their pay (which is never enough), and if they can leave early, and when they get a raise, and when can they sit down and eat one of the 2 or 3 meals they take during an 8 hour shift.

Just this week I had a dishwasher working for a temp service come in and work 3 days and then left halfway through his shift because he had a blister on his foot.  He just left–didn’t tell anyone he was leaving.  The next day he told the temp service that he didn’t know who to tell that he was leaving.

I thought, “If you’re a dishwasher working for a temp service on your 3rd day of work, you might not know who the boss is, but you should know it ain’t you, for fuck’s sake!  And there are no less than 20 people working around you that you could ask.  You don’t just fucking leave!”

So he begged for his job back.  He begged me.  He begged the temp service.  He begged one of my co-managers, and then he begged me again.  I told the temp service that he could come back, but only so I can prove to them why he shouldn’t come back.

He returned the next day wearing saggy jeans and looking like a street thug.  I told him that he would have to go home and put on the proper pants to meet our dress code.  About 12 minutes later he mysteriously appeared with the right pants and went to work–grudgingly and under half-steam.

The next day he called out due to having to take his child to the emergency room with an earache.  I simply emailed the temp service “I told you so”.  Two days later he showed up for work as if nothing had happened and begged to keep his job.  That didn’t go so well for him.

That same day another dishwasher was working a double, and on his break in between shifts he managed to get into a fight with someone and got arrested.  Don’t know when he’ll be back.  Later that night a 3rd dishwasher had to go to the hospital with blood pressure issues.  As far as I know he’s still there, or dead, or something.  I never saw him again.

So all these years later, here I am showing up every morning mainly to see what will happen next.

Just in one day…

A piece of equipment breaks–or several pieces of equipment break (my staff can break a cannonball) just about every day.  An employee trips and falls, which triggers a seizure.  Two new temp service dishwashers come in and I have to get them oriented and set up to work. A walk-in cooler filled with over $25,000 worth of product freezes up and has to be shut down and refilled with freon.  That takes 2 days.  The bakery cooler did the same thing last week and we’re still nursing it along with a series of mismatched pans arranged underneath the cooling fans to catch the dripping condensate.

We changed out the serving utensils that we use in each of our service areas and I have to go around every 3 hours and retrain the staff what to use where, where to get it, where to put it when they’re done, and where not to put it.

The phone rings constantly.  People are calling in sick.  Other managers have staff out and I have to figure out how to juggle my extra staff to cover all the needs of the operation.  The catering director needs to settle a menu for a plated dinner for 630 people in 3 weeks, and I have to call vendors to make sure I can get the food.

I offered an otherwise well-liked cook an opportunity to design a menu for a special event that I think he’ll enjoy and excel at and he refuses on the basis that he’s already doing the work of at least 2 people, and menu design is not in his job description.  He actually asked me if he was going to get paid extra for using his brain, and pointed at his head.  Oh and he isn’t in the right uniform either.  And he’s a militant vegan who won’t hesitate to announce that anyone who eats meat should die.

Other staff members are listening to this guy, and a couple are starting to see things his way.  A revolt is brewing, and probably some eminent turnover that will undoubtedly be welcomed by the time it comes.

A staff member is complaining about another staff member.  Another staff member is complaining about the Sous Chef.  The Sous Chef is complaining about yet another staff member–and the broken equipment.  Half of the staff is out sick and my boss is complaining about fucking labor cost.

The new thumbprint activated time clock doesn’t work, and a dozen or so members of our staff don’t even have fingerprints–and one of out managers refuses to schedule people properly so they can’t clock in anyway.  They come to me about every 12 minutes to override the system so they can clock out.

Another dishwasher goes home with blisters on her feet.

My PM prep guy has a hernia and can barely work–but he does show up and try.

There’s an order for 175 box lunches out by 11am, two catering lunches, two more orders for a dozen or so box lunches each, and then a reception for an endeared staff member who is going away.  I find a Chinese employee at the last minute to write Best Wishes on the cake in Chinese.  Catering clients are calling or emailing every half hour to change the menu on an event 3 days from now.

There are a couple of meetings set.  A cook needs a recipe.  Deliveries come in.  A piece of equipment has to be returned and I can’t find the necessary paperwork.  The printer runs out of toner.  A potential vendor calls and wants to set an appointment so I can tell them I don’t want their products and I can’t buy from them anyway.

Someone’s kid’s school calls and needs to talk with the parent, and I get a call from someone who wants to give me a free cruise.

I don’t cook much anymore.

I answer phones, track business, babysit, put out fires, start fires, think, make signs, solve problems, get broken shit fixed, offer counseling, hold meetings, attend meetings, hire people, reprimand people (occasionally fire people), walk, hide, mediate problems between staff members, write menus, design special events, order food, send back food that I don’t need or didn’t order, write schedules, correct errors made by staff members that cannot or will not follow the schedules I write, enter data, dispense over-the-counter medication, and stare at the wall wondering what asinine thing will come out of someone’s mouth next when they should be fucking working.

During an interview a few months ago some self-important prick actually said to me, “Randy I just don’t understand what it is you do all day”.  Shit, me either!  I can tell you what I did yesterday–and what I really want to do tomorrow–but I’ve learned to be flexible.

This is the life (apparently) of an Executive Chef, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way!  I’m the luckiest guy I know.

Don’t get me wrong, I just know there are still plenty of fine-dining kitchens that are filled with passion and endless rounds of culinary trivia…bright-eyed aspiring young culinarians asking questions and working their butts off to get it right.  But there isn’t a lot of money in fine-dining.  It’s art, and most artists are starving.

So what makes a true chef?

It’s no secret to us in the business that the Food Network has done volumes for our profession!  Chefs truly are celebrities these days–almost a white collar profession in some circles.  There are chefs that make as much as the average movie star–not an A-Lister maybe, but an average one.  And who doesn’t want to be a chef when they see the life that Rachel Ray lives, or Anthony Bourdain getting to travel all over the world, or Guy Fieri driving that cool car, or Gordon Ramsay unloading on some poor cook the way we all want to unload on someone at some point.  He gets away with the things we all want to say and do, and people still love him!  He may actually be one of the wealthiest chefs alive, truth be known.

And there’s a reason that Top Chef, Chopped, and Iron Chef America are top-rated shows.  I even know a couple guys that were on those shows.  But because they win America’s Next Chef doesn’t make them the next Grant Achatz or Thomas Keller.

I think that the true measure of a chef should not be what an impressive dish he or she can crank out in one hour.  It should not be what kind of dessert he or she can concoct with a pack of saltines, some marshmallow creme, 3 violets, and a jar of mustard.  It should never be how many different items the chef and a small army of assistants can make in one hour, all using pork bellies.

A chef’s skill should definitely not be judged by the use of sea urchin.  And the ability to source and find a use for rare little fish from a remote lake in Nova Scotia takes no cooking skill at all.  What it does require is a good relationship with a motivated forager, which should not be discounted as a vital skill.

No, what I believe makes a chef a great chef, embodying all that is “chefdom” should be some complicated equation that combines something like at least the following factors:

– The number of unsolicited applications that the chef receives per month for kitchen jobs, and the percentage of those that come from culinary students.
– The total number of staff working in the kitchen, and their total combined years of service in that one place.
– Food cost for the slowest month of the year.
– Labor cost for the slowest month of the year.
– The number of repeat diners in the dining room at 8:00 on a Tuesday night relative to how many there are at the same time on Saturday.
– Average length of time that reservations are made in advance.
– The number of restaurants in a 50 mile radius that are trying to duplicate the chef’s dishes or ideas.  Bonus points if a manufacturer of food or food service equipment offers a product based on one of the chef’s menu items or techniques.
– The quality of the aforementioned chef’s personal life after having received high marks in all of the aforementioned criteria.

Based on this formula I’m lucky to have a job, but I do and I’m grateful.  It’s been a good life!

*** UPDATE ***

Since beginning this article some time ago I became aware of the proverb that says that a chef is only as good as his last meal, and I have a new job.  So far it’s going about the same as the last one with some additional nuances.  It’s still a good life!  More later.