I was thinking back to a fantastic lecture that I attended maybe in 1982 or 1983 that was presented by Andre Soltner – one of the true great chefs of my generation. Soltner was, at the time, the chef/owner of Lutece in New York City – arguably the best French restaurant in America. The restaurant felt like his home in a beautiful neighborhood of the Big Apple (I think Soltner may have even lived upstairs). Rumor has it that he was never away from his restaurant for a service and in the case of this presentation he had flown in and was scheduled to fly back out immediately afterward to return to the range for service that night. Anyway, Soltner with the grace of a true professional took off his glasses and pointed to the audience of “chefs” and said: “You must put aside all of this unnecessary ego about being a chef and remember that we are all cooks.”
Every once in a while I give pause and think about those words of wisdom from a great cook. I remember back, and would encourage everyone to do the same, to when I first started out in the food business – way back to the time when I was a 15 year old dishwasher. What made my day and drove me to jump out of bed in the morning was the thought that maybe, just maybe, I would be allowed to flip some eggs over easy or portion an order of griddle cakes on the flat top. It was those moments that convinced me that kitchen work was something that made sense, something that inspired me and made me feel at home.
Throughout my decades of work related to the food industry it was always those moments standing next to a range, grabbing a screaming hot sauté pan, or feeling the sweat roll down my back as I faced a cherry red char-grill that brought a smile to my face. The cadence of a French knife working through a pile of fresh parsley or sliding a fillet knife through a salmon side may seem like monotonous work to some, but to me it will always be poetic.
The goal of many cooks, myself included, was to finally reach that pinnacle in a career – the job of chef. Pulling that ring of keys from your pocket, opening the door to the chef’s office, and settling in for a day of unknowns, a day filled with challenges, problems, and a solid dose of “yes chef” responses, is what it’s all about. But is it?
A chef’s job is incredibly difficult, some days nearly impossible, but always holding a glimmer of satisfaction. Chefs have arrived when they possess a balance of skills that allows for the efficient and profitable operation of a kitchen. You have arrived when everything runs like clockwork: the scheduling, the ordering, inventories, menu planning, budgeting, staff training, checking in product, building recipes, expediting on the line, pushing and driving the staff to exceed expectations and occasionally walking through the dining room to talk with guests. This is what you spent a lifetime preparing for and now you smile as that name plate on your office proclaims: “Executive Chef”. The staff acknowledges you by position name (chef), the dining room staff avoids too much contact with you for fear of an unexpected burst of wrath, owners accept your temperament and give you as much latitude as they are willing to tolerate, and every guest who walks through the door thinks that you personally make every dish that leaves the kitchen. Life is good – right?
I look back and remember with great fondness those times when the task at hand was all about the food. I relished collecting proteins and produce from the cooler, sanitizing a workstation, sharpening knives, and making sure that every part of a dish was handled just as it should be. The vegetables were cut with precision, the meats and fish were portioned with incredible accuracy, searing proteins was a religious experience, and seasoning was handled through the portal of all your senses. Working the line was an opportunity to practice exceptional organization – almost at the same level as a pilot double checking his or her immense number of gauges and levers, pans were lined up and ready for pre-heating, towels were folded, water for personal hydration was close at hand, and your brain was cleared of all thoughts except the diverse number of preparations necessary to run your station. When the POS printer said: “go” you were ready to attack the evening with strength and grace. This was going to be a great night. I remember those days.
We should always remember why wee got started in this insane business. It was all about cooking, all about the heat and fire, all and about the palate and the ability to assemble beautiful plates of food. This is what was so exciting about the work that we do. I don’t know any chef who said “I can’t wait to start reviewing those reports, counting product in the coolers, and building next years budget. What every chef craves, what brings a smile to his or her face and provides such incredible satisfaction, is cooking.
Restaurants need to run efficiently, they need to be profitable, and every restaurant must live with a sense of order and purpose – but every chef needs to cook. There must always be a balance that includes time with a pan and heat, if that unbridled passion that drew a person to the kitchen is to remain. Yes, we are all cooks.
Chopping and dicing is calming and connecting with fresh fish or sub-primal cuts of meat is the juice that gets a chef through another 14-hour day. This is the first realization that a chef must embrace. Secondly, every chef must step back, take a breath and understand that he or she is in this position because someone, or maybe a few someone’s, took the time to help groom them for the position of chef. This realization should be the light bulb moment that allows a chef to understand that he or she must give back to the next generation of young cooks. These young cooks have dreams as profound as yours. As a chef, you are able to help those dreams come to life. At the same time – every chef should take the time to instill in cooks the appreciation for what is important, for what pulled then into an all or nothing life of kitchen work. It’s all about cooking.
I have observed countless times the two most extraordinary moments when a chef is truly at peace, when the pressure of the job is somehow replaced with a smile and a clear acknowledgement of joy: those moments are when a chef ties on an apron and works magic on a stove, in an oven, or on a grill; and when he or she sees that same gift of enlightenment in the eyes of a young cook who finally starts to put it all together and presents a perfectly executed plate of food.
This is why Andre Soltner had to be back at Lutece for service, this is why he never missed a day of operation, and this is clearly why he chose to remind all of those chefs in the audience that they should never forget that they are all cooks.
All the obstacles, all the challenges, all the missed moments because you had to be in the kitchen, and all of the swollen ankles and throbbing feet will melt away when a cook has the opportunity to express him or herself on a plate.
“I always say this to the young chefs and mean it: The customer is excited, he sees you as an artist, but we are not. We are just craftspeople with a little talent. If the chef is an artist he doesn’t succeed. Why? Because he (or she) is inspired today, but not tomorrow. We cannot do that.” We are all cooks.
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Being a Cook is a Noble Profession
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