Nearly everyone in the restaurant business that I know cringes when anyone mentions one of the “reality food shows” on various networks. Inaccurate would not go far enough to describe the environment that is portrayed. Some may clarify and say, well this is really entertainment, but to a professional chef or cook, this “entertainment” does insurmountable harm to a great profession and paints a picture far from reality.
Way too many young people choose to attend culinary school as a result of over-exposure to shows that infer that cooks can wear what they want, chefs can say what they want, everything they prepare is judged by a panel of critics, that whatever piece of equipment they would like to see in a kitchen is available, cost is no object, and everything evolves around the spontaneity of developing a menu on the fly with obscure ingredients. This is not the kitchen of today, nor is it the kitchen that most professionals are used to or would accept. So let’s take a minute to define what it is really like.
The kitchens of Gordon Ramsey with red vs. blue teams, constant screaming (in full view of the guest), belittling of cooks by the chef and everyone looking out for themselves is so far from real that I am not sure where to begin. This is not to say that tempers never rise or that chefs never raise their voice, but the environment portrayed on TV would easily fall under the heading of: hostile work environment, a situation that can bring the department of labor or even lawsuits hovering at the back door of a restaurant. It just cannot happen like this any more. Most of the cooks that I know, if they were attacked in the way that Chef Ramsey is portrayed would either walk out the back door or pin him up against a cooler wall. Professional kitchens today stress the importance of team work, define success in terms of how everyone carries themselves on the job, how the chef attempts to manage calm in the kitchen that could easily melt due to the physical nature of the tasks involved and the pressure surrounding the timing and complexity of preparation.
As much as every chef and cook would love to have $100,000 Bonnet ranges in their operation, beautiful copper pots or Cuisinart cookware, that is rarely the case. Typically we work on ranges that have survived past their useful life and are kept alive through magical maintenance repair work and aluminum pans that are seasoned through heat and salt polishing and are bowed from constant exposure to open flames. The only copper is sitting in the chef’s office and brought out for decoration on dining room buffets. Cooks have been known to hide pots and pans in their lockers to ensure that they have something to work with on their shift (especially breakfast cooks who claim their egg pans are private property never to be touched by any other food except eggs).
Although cooks and chefs today may have a heavy dose of body tattoos, their uniforms are likely to be conservative white jackets, houndstooth pants, skull caps, side towels, white or blue aprons and supportive black shoes. Professional kitchens take pride in the tradition around the uniform and enforce the need for cooks to respect this.
It is very rare that a chef or cook is required to make a spontaneous menu out of silly ingredients that have no business in the same dish. Menus and recipes are developed painstakingly over a period of time with input from cooks, dining room staff and management. Recipes are tested, plate presentations are wrestled with and what appears on a menu is well thought out, researched and executed. Some restaurants are able to offer menus that change daily, but even in those cases – items are drawn from a chefs repertoire or expanded from dishes and techniques previously developed. Chefs take menu development very seriously, even daily features that might be drawn from available ingredient inventory or an occasional item that is driven by an unusual seasonal ingredient.
Iron Chef and Top Chef are sometimes fun to watch, but you may note that basic business acumen rarely comes into play. No one ever worries about the cost of ingredients, the limitless availability of equipment, or what a restaurant would need to charge for the items produced. I have seen dishes with excessive amounts of shaved truffle (probably $25-30 worth of cost on a plate which would equate to $75 or so in additional selling price), foie gras used as if it were the same price as chicken liver, items sautéed in expensive extra virgin olive oil and 25 year old balsamic vinegar drizzled on tomatoes at 10 times the price of a more standard balsamic product. Chefs are responsible for operating a restaurant as a financially successful business and to portray the position as being oblivious to this is terribly misleading.
If the networks want to portray accurate life in the kitchen, then they could find thousands of examples that are exciting, realistic and focused on painting a picture that could be easily digested by those in the industry, those who love to dine out and young people contemplating a career in a professional kitchen. Demonstrate the total commitment to cleanliness, sanitation and food safety. Show a typical day in a chef’s life from menu building, to working with purveyors, training cooks and ensuring that standards are followed, setting up the line for service, pre-meal with the service staff, keeping dishwashers happy, taking the time to build great plate presentations, keeping the rhythm of the line such that cooks don’t crash and burn half way though a busy night, and the challenges of adjusting to food allergies and unique food preferences. Show how a chef sweats the details of cost control: portioning, price shopping with various vendors, waste management, cross-utilization of ingredients, and inventory management. This is a daily challenge that consumes much of a chef’s day.
The restaurant business is very difficult and those who can adapt to the kitchen, understand their role, work well as a member of the team, remain focused on the foundations of cooking and be consistent in their approach to food preparation are a unique, proud breed who needs to be portrayed accurately: MY two cents.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting, Training and Coaching