I am happy to share a commonality with many of the professional cooks and chefs with whom I have worked over decades in the kitchen. It is this commonality that drives us to do what we do, and it is this commonality that is in short supply nowadays. The commonality is our voice through food; a voice that is built through years of practice, history and tradition, environment and experiences, family and friends, and a cumulative portfolio of all these influences. What you see on the plate is who we are. What you experience in our kitchens is a mix of what life has presented us – some not so great, but mostly wonderful and even remarkable.
It’s interesting how much of this may not be apparent initially – like a great stock it takes time to develop. There is a foundation that is universal, but then the chef takes over and adds his or her signature to the mix. Underneath the years of trial and error, wins and losses, memorable days, and ones to forget – each of these culinary professionals relies on the basics to form a blueprint for expression. Knowledge of the foundations of cooking are essential just like the foundations of music theory are necessary for any expressive musician, or an understanding of color, shape, and texture set the stage for a painter or sculptor. We all begin there, and we all fall back on that understanding every day that we cook, play, or paint.
This is what keeps a cook in the game, this is what sets the stage for consistency and familiarity, this is the baseline that keeps a cook employable. From there a cook or chef is in control of where they go next, what their food will look, smell, and taste like – this is where a culinary professional goes to find their signature. The best cooks are always looking to build on those foundations, to find their voice. The best cooks are always aware of the opportunities that life brings to learn, grow, experience, and become a channel for each step of their journey. This is what inspires a person to stay the course and build a life in the kitchen.
You can see it in a menu, you can see and taste it on the plate, and you can feel it when you walk in their kitchen. The chefs who have found their voice, who have found a way to take what life has offered and use it as their inspiration, and then mold everything into who they are, are obvious to every stakeholder in the restaurant experience. Yes, they (we) can be sometimes obsessive and even eccentric, but you can’t deny that the result is interesting. You know this voice is present the minute you walk into a dining room or step foot in the kitchen – there is an energy hard to deny; an energy that permeates every part of the operation. The cooks who work there know it, the vendors who sell raw materials know it, the owner knows it, and every guest feels it before they even sit down for service.
That voice is the magic of a very good or even great restaurant. Once the voice is determined, all parts of the restaurant begin to fall in place. If the chef has grown in highly professional restaurants where structure and preciseness are the rule, then his or her kitchen will now look and feel that way. Uniforms will be pristine, the demeanor of cooks will be professional, knives will be sharp, and pans scrubbed clean. The coolers and storerooms will be organized, and prep sheets methodically built each day, and of course each plate of food will be designed with consistency in mind. The dining room will follow suit with standards of excellence in full swing. Place settings measured from the edge of the table, glassware lined up like soldiers in full dress, and the approach service staff members take in addressing a table will be tight and professional.
If the chef worked with inventive, inquisitive, never satisfied professionals, then his or her kitchen will thrive on the energy of stepping outside the lines. The menu will be unique with an approach that makes some question what is going on and others applaud at how exciting it might be. Each cook will feel comfortable straying a bit from the standardized approach while still paying due respect to those foundations. The voice of the kitchen will drive the voice of the dining room and the experience of the guest.
If the chef has worked with traditionalists who connect with farmers, fisherman, ranchers, and wine makers, then the operation will evolve around those relationships of respect for the ingredient and the work that the provider does. You will find an enthusiasm for what each cook has on their cutting board is evident in how materials are handled and stored, cared for, and prepared – showing reverence for the privilege of working with them. This will extend to the dining room as well where servers are just as knowledgeable and committed to the source as the chef and cooks.
When entering a restaurant, you will see and feel immediately how serious everyone is about food and beverage. This feeling is in the air because it relates to who the restaurant is – a living and breathing vehicle for the voice of the chef.
I have spent my career working with and admiring chefs and cooks like this. If asked why I chose a decades long life in front of a range, I would immediately talk about the individual and collective voice of this type of cook and chef. We appreciate each other, refer to each other, respect each other, and constantly learn from each other. What is interesting to me is how much our voice does evolve because of the openness we have to learning from each other. We rarely look at what we do as a job, it is who we are. The kitchen is our studio, our library, our musical score, and the plate is our canvas for expressing the life we have lived, the people we have known, the experiences that have come our way.
There are still many cooks and chefs who are seeking their voice, but far too many who have lost the inspiration to take the journey and collect what life has to offer. For them, the position of chef is a demanding job; for those who take the road towards their voice, the position is an opportunity to make a dent in the universe using food as their vehicle.
I am excited when I walk into an operation where that voice is evident. I want to be part of it, to see, smell, touch, and taste it. This is the place I want to be – with people who grabbed on to the opportunity to speak through their work. When I walk into an operation where this is not evident, I feel profound sadness over missed opportunities. Find your voice and know what it means to be all that you can be as a chef.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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