Monday, June 25, 2007

A Chef, by any other name......

I was out to dinner with my roommate on Saturday, enjoying a meal at a chain restaurant when he started firing off culinary questions at me.

He's semi-new to the "professional cook" game, but no stranger to the industry. He hails from India where his family owns and runs hotels. We were engaged in a lengthy debate and discussion about food and recipes when he stopped and said..

"Man, dude, your gonna be a great chef.."

Now I dont know if its my humility, or the fact that I have a hard time thinking Im anything special, but there was such a mixed reaction from me when he said it.

On one hand my chest swells with pride at such a compliment, but on the other theres a cold chill down my spine.

Ive been thinking about it alot for the last two days and Im left wondering "what makes a great chef great? Knowledge? Skill?"

This question is nothing new to the culinary debate ring, I have heard it debated a million times before.. but in the end Ive come to this conclusion...

I dont care.

It sounds funny I know, but I really dont care what "makes a great chef" because we all know deep down the answer to that question. Passion, Commitment, and Information are all really good answers.. and in a sense all true.

But from where I stand right now, from what I know and what I have seen the only real answer for me is Understanding.

To know what Julia Child knew... to know what MK Fisher knew... to understand that at the heart of it all cooking, nah, food is about the meal. Its about the togetherness, the bond that happens while sitting down to a meal.

Understanding that we all desire, we all love and want, and during that brief time at a meal we each co-inhabit the same moment in time, the same desire for company and comradery.

What is a real chef?

Our grandparents, our fathers, our mothers, our brothers and sisters, our friends...
They are all chefs, if when you sit down to a meal with them they see through your eyes and you through theirs.

Its not about fame, its not about money, its not even about having the best menu or recipes. Cooking isnt a competition, at least it shouldn’t be.

Sitting down to a meal with those you care about and sharing that brief moment where the world ceases and time stands still.

When I think back on it, when I really think about it what I picture in my mind is visiting my grandmother in Philadelphia.

The oven was always on, the stove always full of pots and pans. The aroma of meatballs and tomato sauce hanging heavy in the air. Her, ushering her five grandsons into the small nitch of her apartment that served as the dining room to feed them. The look in her eyes as she stood over us all and smiled as we stuffed our little faces.

A Chef, by any other name....


The O said...

Very well thought out and said; I couldn't agree with you more. While I've never been a fan of any seafood, I've always loved eating Maryland blue crabs. Honestly, I think my taste for them was developed partly because eating them is such an event. So then do reality shows like Hell's Kitchen bother you?

The Foodist said...

Eh, to say a show like Hells Kitchen bothers me would imply I care enough about it to form that opinion.

I actually caught an episode of it the other day in which they were doing a blind taste test.

The "Wafflehouse cook" beat out the "Sous Chef" which I thought was rather amusing.

People think because you go to a culinary school, or because you have that title that they are the hottest thing since sliced bread. When in actuality chances are there are fry cooks at places like Waffle House that could cook you under the table.

Its really about humility, willingness to learn, and the want to improve I think.

gary allen said...

"What is a real chef?"

It's interesting that you chose to mention -- along with your grandmother -- Julia Child and MFK Fisher. Because none of them were "chefs." Indeed, you never mentioned a single person who actually worked in a restaurant.

I make that distinction because "chef" is an occupation, a career, an entire spectrum of activities, of which cooking is only one (think of all the business, law, health, and personnel management details a chef must juggle to keep a kitchen going).

What all the people you mentioned had in common was their love of food and their awareness of the place of food in our social, emotional and intellectual lives (OK, Julia might have been less into that than Fisher and your grandmother -- or maybe she was).

I think there are a lot of food writers, scholars -- and just plain foodies -- who might be the sort of "chefs by any other name" you describe.

Put another way, a chef's training is one result of his/her broad obsession with food, not its cause.

Perhaps your roommate's comment ("Man, dude, your gonna be a great chef..") was a response to his recognition of that passion in you, not the knowledge you've acquired?

The Foodist said...


You make a really great point here and something I seemed to have overlooked in my rant.

Part of this blog entry stemmed from a conversation I had with A Faustian Bargain about how Culinary Schools are "tainting" the word "Chef".

You are right in the sense of a Chef being more then just a cook who loves food, but again we would have to delve into what makes the difference between a cook and a chef.

I guess the point I was trying to make is we spend so much time worrying about what the criteria are to be able to call someone a chef, that we forget why we choose to cook sometimes.

but for the sake of debate I want to rebuttle a comment of yours:

Put another way, a chef's training is one result of his/her broad obsession with food, not its cause.

Perhaps your roommate's comment ("Man, dude, your gonna be a great chef..") was a response to his recognition of that passion in you, not the knowledge you've acquired?

But couldnt the opposite be true? Ive been in school with students before who only came because they didnt know what else to do, and fell head over heals in love with cooking because of the work. But I think maybe thats the oddity that disproves the theory?

and, Wouldnt you say obtaining the advanced knowledge fuel that passion in someone? I mean had I not learned what I know now, some of the things we were talking about wouldnt have lead him to say what he did.

Just some thoughts, but thanks for your reply.