Who’s Really Cooking?

Let me start with an overdue apology, dear reader. There is no excuse for it, and I won’t even try to BS you with one. I work in a world-ranked restaurant with James Beard awards and Michelin stars. I have a perspective that is unique among unique perspectives. I could have been sharing it all with you for the last ten months, but I haven’t been. And for that, shame on me.

Moving back to Chicago and beginning this intense job was a big process. A lot of changes have occurred since then and while in some ways, I’m right where I was in a lot of ways, I am nowhere near where I was last we spoke. This is a good thing. I can honestly say that working eight hours on weekdays in a restaurant took some getting used to. And the separation from service staff is still something that becomes quite hard for me, from time to time. They’re all brothers and sisters in the trenches, and I’m in the office on the side of the people in charge. They don’t invite me out, but they seem to like me. We don’t work together directly, but I understand them and their jobs completely. They don’t understand mine at all. It can be difficult, emotionally, and kinda lonely.

Truth told, there isn’t a ton to share that I think would be of interest to you. My job is a lot of administration. I deal with the media, cooking events, publications, promotions, social media, manage six email accounts, in a lot of ways have become the defacto office manager, and on. None of it has to do with what you think probably goes on in a major restaurant with a major chef.

Thing is, that’s true for her as well. Very often she’ll lament that she never cooks anymore, and how her job is spent doing things that take her away from what she got into it for in the first place: cooking. Sure she reviews the menus and expedites on busy nights, but she’s rarely, very rarely, on the line with a skillet or standing at the grill. In fact if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do it. If she’s holding a kitchen utensil, it’s a knife and she’s chopping.

At some point, when chefs decide to expand and grow, they often lose the muscle tone honed by their own sport. Someone else picks up the toque and goes forward, and they stand in the doorway and watch them become something bigger. Sometimes a head chef themselves. This is, it should be noted, a choice. If a chef chooses to embrace the media and that train is set in motion, they can either choose to get on it and go or they can set up shot at the station and visit it whenever it pulls through. Not every famous chef stops cooking and creating. Many do, especially when fame comes knocking, but several don’t. They don’t lose sight of the art and craft and at the end of the day, they are the first ones to admit that they aren’t splitting atoms or curing cancer: they’re feeding people. And that, comes from an ego in check and a clogged foot firmly planted on a kitchen mat.

Next time you have an amazing meal, really and truly ridiculously great, don’t tweet or Facebook (or even ask for) the celebrity chef. Ask for the chef de cuisine. That’s who designed the menu and is either doing the cooking, or overseeing it done by the hardworking line cooks. Those are who is feeding you. Sure, the chef had a hand in the composition and ok’d the dish’s design, but they aren’t the ones flipping the halibut and frying the Brussels sprouts leaves. It’s not meant to pop a bubble, but in this day and age of chefs somehow becoming famous (for cooking!), it’s important to know exactly who deserves the pat on the back. It takes a wonderful chef and restaurant owner to shine a light on them, they are notoriously underpaid and overworked. Bring them a nice bottle of booze if it’s a place you really enjoy and frequent. If you ask for a chef to come to your table and their whites aren’t covered in juices and stains, they either didn’t touch a single pan or they were kind enough to change jackets before leaving the kitchen. They should be sweaty and distracted, however.

Those are just a few things I’ve picked up from my particular experience, and that’s what I can share with you at the moment. Things are going to change pretty soon for me I think, and when they do I’ll check back in. For now, patronize restaurants in January and February. It’s usually dead, the servers are broke, and the cooks get bored. Now is the time.

See you soon.


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