CAN CHEFS GET OLD AND STAY RELEVANT?

Painted in Waterlogue

 

I have often caught myself saying that cooking in a professional kitchen is a young persons game. Having left the kitchen for education and then returned at the age of 55, it was obvious to me that certain jobs within a kitchen required physical stamina and mental acuity that comes with youth, however, there were still many other areas of responsibility where mental maturity and experience ruled. The dilemma of age and remaining relevant plagues nearly every profession, but my point of reference can only be what I know, thus I thought it was a topic worth investigating.

An interesting parallel might be the evolution of musical taste and how each age group perceives the other. When I was very young I can remember the impatience that the over 50 crowd had with what we were listening to. On the other hand, I, like my peers, felt that those over 50 were listening to prehistoric tunes that seemed so uninteresting to us. This disparity in preference was, is and will likely always be present. Much of today’s music seems dysfunctional to me and I am sure that the opposite is true with those who have worked with me in the kitchen and are under the age of 30. Oh, well, such is life; right?

Think about the changes in today’s kitchens and how dramatically they have occurred over the past decade or so. Health Departments are looking for HACCP charts in your kitchen; tracking temperatures of food throughout preparation, service and storage. State’s are wrestling with sous vide as a method of cooking used for decades in Europe, but is making some people uncomfortable in our country. Molecular Gastronomy is still hanging on as the new cool thing in restaurants and from my experience, something that young cooks seem way too excited about. New retail cuts of meat have made the old standard NAMP Guide seem obsolete. Concerns over the integrity of the food supply have driven more and more chefs to shy away from large-scale vendors and begin building relationships with farmers. Customers are asking about your policy on GMO’s, grass fed beef, sustainable seafood and the extent of your carbon footprint. Food Allergies seem to be the norm, as restaurants are required to accommodate a growing need for safe options. The amount of change makes classic (another term for old) chefs dizzy.

Those valuable line cooks, bakers and pastry chefs who work for chefs have gone through a metamorphosis as well. The once cherished conservative look, military response to chef directives, respect for traditional methods and focus on the basics is gradually transitioning to something different. In some chef’s eyes, this difference is hard to swallow. Although many cooks are still prepared to invest the time in the trade and give 100% of their effort to cooking, many others are looking for balance in their lives, sometimes sacrificing money and experience for more time off. The uniform, something with history and strong tradition is morphing into something where style supersedes function.

The electronic age has enveloped kitchen life where computers have invaded a chef’s office, providing tools that were otherwise unheard of, as long as the chef has the digital savvy to understand how to use them. Point of sale systems and programs like FoodTrac have made the process of tracking menu popularity and product costs something that can be monitored every day, as long as the chef adjusts his or her schedule to focus on the data and not the food being prepared.

Dining in restaurants has become a source of entertainment. Open kitchens, video monitors with a view of the kitchen, crazy, fun food presentations, and chefs in the dining room have all added to the experience of the guest, picking up on the interest diners have in the so called magic of the kitchen. When does entertainment surpass the need for focus on flavor and solid cooking technique? Where is the balance?

Is it ever passé to cherish classic technique an older chef brings to the kitchen environment? Is it ever passé to relish well-established dishes, procedures, flavors and presentations? Is there still a place for the historic environment of the kitchen, the function of the kitchen brigade and the chain of command established by chefs like Escoffier, Point, and Bocuse, and protected by Keller, Ripert, and Boulud?

It has been said that 60 is the new 40, but does this apply to chefs who are trying to protect tradition and stay relevant at a time when the restaurant experience is evolving at breakneck speed?

Here is what I believe:

  • What goes around comes around. The foundations will always serve cooks, chefs and restaurants well and as much as new and exciting trends slip into our repertoire; flavor, appropriateness, and recognizable food will always have a place.
  • A chef’s experience will always have a place in kitchens where the routine is interrupted by the unexpected. It is experience that gives a chef the confidence to work through the unexpected.
  • As with other art forms, a cook or chef’s signature begins with an understanding of process, history, proven preparations and solid foundations. New ideas can only come about from this understanding to begin with. The aging chef is the protector of those foundations.
  • Those chefs who are over the age of 40 are well equipped to teach and train. These are essential skills that will protect an understanding of what came first while laying the groundwork for what will come in the future.

Now, on the other side, a chef can never sit back and ignore new trends, techniques, technologies or approaches to food. If a chef is to remain relevant, regardless of age, he or she must stay current; read and observe, learn and apply what is available. In an article in Business Insider, Carmine Gibaldi of Harvard University presented ways for older employees, in any industry, to stay relevant. A few of these are very applicable:

1. “Don’t speak of the past, and the way things use to be done or were. Reminiscing can be deadly, and create a chasm between you and the younger workers.”

OK, I see her point, but the need to understand how and why something was done in the past gives us a starting point for determining whether or not this is still appropriate or if this can be used as a benchmark for change.

2. “Work late 1-2 nights per week, communicate that you are a “go-getter”, and can put in the time just as everyone else does.”

This is rarely a problem for chefs; the job demands that extra time.

3. “Stay positive. As people age, they seem to complain more, and communicate a negative vibe about many things. Don’t communicate that your best years are behind you.”

You are only as young as you project (rather than as you feel). There never seems to be a shortage of things to complain about, but the chef needs to show enthusiasm and excitement for the job and the desire to learn what is new. Your best years are always now.

4. “Obviously, many people over fifty or so are not as techno savvy. Just don’t highlight it.”

Technology can be our friend or enemy. It is a battle that you can’t win. Deal with it! Embrace technology as a great tool and learn all that you can. Anyone, at any age, can learn new things if they have the desire to do so.

**To read more about Ms. Gibaldi’s article, go to this link:

http://www.businessinsider.com/11-ways-for-older-employees-to-still-feel-relevant-at-work-2012-8

There is a transition cooks go through during their careers. It is important for chefs to understand their career is not terminal once they reach the Executive Chef level. We (aging chefs) should view the career track as follows:

COOK – ROUNDSMAN – SOUS CHEF – EXECUTIVE CHEF – MENTOR & COACH

In the long run, our ultimate role is to teach the next generation to appreciate the foundations and traditions and to be prepared for creating what will come.

 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

 

Follow our blog at: www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

 

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