Some may believe that the culinary evolution in America began with Wavy Gravy at Woodstock in 1969. As the chief of the Pleasure Force and front man for the commune “The Hog Farm”, Wavy Gravy helped to orchestrate a haphazard, non-conformist way to feed the 500,000 people in attendance at this benchmark for a generation. The difference is that WG was far from an advocate for proper food preparation or a role model for a generation of culinary professionals.
*For those born after 1965 who may not know who Wavy Gravy is:
Maybe you feel that the counter-culture had it’s start with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and the dozens of accomplished chefs who earned their kitchen legs working for this Berkeley, California pioneer. Could it be Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge who are credited with the transformation to Nouvelle Cuisine in France, or maybe Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller for bringing the Tasting Menu to America? Younger folks will point to Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, standard bearers for Molecular Cuisine and their disciples: Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne from Alinea and WD-50. Certainly, Dan Barber and his support for a true Farm to Table movement would be on anyone’s list and some would insist that the real counter-culture evolved when Anthony Bourdain wrote his expose’, “Kitchen Confidential”, that pointed to the seedy side of the business.
In truth, the culinary counter-culture has really been around since the early days of organized kitchen work. If you work in a kitchen, life is different, thus you are different. This will date far back to Scappi, Careme and Escoffier; the counter-culture was born when the first person hung a sign that proclaimed, “restaurant.”
“A counterculture (also written counter-culture) is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores.”
Here is my logic as it pertains to the definition of counter-culture:
Our values and norms of behavior differ substantially in the following ways:
- If you work in a kitchen there is little need for any clothes other than t-shirts, chef coats and hounds tooth pants.
- If you work in a kitchen you are usually working a shift that is counter to anyone else except maybe FedEx and UPS logistics.
- Unlike the rest of the world, 40-hour workweeks are just a start. Most cooks would consider a 40-hour job to be part-time.
- Unlike “normal” people, burns cuts and abrasions are a badge of honor for cooks.
- What other career requires a person to utilize all of his or her senses as part of the job?
- Outside of the military, there are few jobs that require adherence to a chain of command mentality that can be summarized with two words: “yes, chef.”
- Few other jobs view caring for knives as not just acceptable, but admirable and a sign of commitment to a profession. A sharp knife becomes an extension of the cook; his or her most prized possession.
- Kitchens are loud, very hot, humid, intense, at times smoke filled, demanding and fast paced. Unless you chose to work in a steel plant, there are very few industries designed around this type of “Dante’s Inferno” atmosphere.
- The kitchen is, to a large degree, a closed loop environment, for members only. These members (cooks and chefs) tend to treat their environment as a private club, a club of people who understand what each member experiences on a daily basis.
To test this theory, when dining at other restaurants, I have always made note to the server that I work in kitchens and would love to see the back-of-the-house if the chef was comfortable with this. The end result is typically, an open-arms welcome, an extra course on the chef, a tour of the kitchen and acknowledgement that all club members are treated like family.
Although numerous recent authors have revealed what it may be like on the inside, cook club members know that to understand the counter-culture of the kitchen, you need to be a part of it. You need to feel the heat, lose a pound of sweat every night, burn and cut yourself with the pans and knives that you cherish, experience the pressure of an unrelenting order discharge from the POS printer, and stand on your feet for 10-12 hours a day. You need to realize how important and loyal that cook standing next to you is to the success of the night. You need to understand that for those 10-12 hours, everyone in the kitchen is equal and equally important. Then, and only then, can you understand the counter-culture of the restaurant kitchen.
As Wavy Gravy announced on the stage at Woodstock, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000” the Grateful Dead was preparing to sing; “What a long strange trip it’s been.” Every cook member of the kitchen counter-culture would agree.
Put on an apron, hounds tooth pants, skullcap, and supportive shoes; sharpen your knives to a razors edge, scrub your hands 50 times a day, grab a cutting board and join the counter-culture. It is alive and well.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching