Worldwide there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who hold the title of chef. It is a title that seems well defined, yet each individual portrays it differently and fits the position with a unique set of qualifications. It would be somewhat naïve to try and classify all of these chefs into specific silos, but at least from my experience I have seen five distinct types of chefs and all of the baggage that they carry with them.
THE GIFTED: We throw around the “gifted” descriptor far too freely. I watched a video the other day of a 10 year-old musical prodigy who had mastered the piano, violin, and had a natural ability to write classical works for a full orchestra –TEN YEARS OLD! She is gifted. In our industry, Escoffier was gifted, as was Charlie Trotter, and is Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller, Danny Meyer, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Dominique Crenn, Rene Redzepi, and a handful of others who are driven, naturally creative, over-the-top unique, and able to make everyone else think differently about food. They are typically very hard to work with even though they are easy to admire. They tend to be steamrollers who are on a mission to move people in a direction that they may not be willing to move and brush aside those who are unwilling to risk it all. We need these people because they force us to move away from our comfort zone and open our eyes to the possibility. We may not even like what they do with food, but we scratch out heads and say WOW, that is interesting. Without the gifted any field can easily become complacent.
THE TROUBLED: There is sometimes very little difference between the gifted and the troubled. The major difference is that the troubled are unable to separate what they do from who they are. The troubled chefs are the ones who can’t break away from their creative drive. They can easily become haunted by their talent and unable to think about anything but what this talent allows them to do. They are always their own worst critic and far too often are never satisfied with the results of their cooking, their menus, and how THEY perceive their restaurants to be. Their success is never enough. As many applaud their efforts, they focus on finding personal fault. The troubled are plagued by the demon of talent and success and feel somewhat empty even while others see their cup as full. We can learn a great deal from the talented and troubled, but need to understand that they are really the ones who can learn from others with more balance in their lives.
If you have been in the business for some time it is likely that you have known a troubled chef. If not, you certainly know of them. Chefs Bernard Loiseau and
Benoît Violier, and even Anthony Bourdain are victims of the demons of success. These are the names in the press, but there are many others of less renown who have succumb to the pressures of being good at what they do – it just wasn’t enough for them.
Probably the greatest number of chefs fit into the category of “determined”. These chefs may not have been born with the “gift”, maybe they aren’t naturally creative nor were they born with a perfect palate, but they do have the desire to be successful and make a difference with food. Their shortcomings with creativity don’t set them back; they simply make up for their lack of “gift” by working twice as hard as anyone else. Their talent comes from sweat equity – effort versus natural talent. These chefs are more often than not the real role models that attract young people to this business and build team environments with like-minded, full of great work ethnic, culinary enthusiasts who never give up. They relish their success and that of others, still take to heart their shortcomings and failures, but use those shortcomings to grow and become stronger.
THE WASTED TALENT:
In nearly every professional kitchen stands a cook with tremendous potential who may, through the luck of the draw; wind up as a chef in a property at some point in his or her career. These individuals fell into a position because someone else saw their potential unrealized and gave them a shot at the lead position. Not taking advantage of a talent that a cook/chef has for whatever reason: lack of confidence, lack of desire, fear of failure, distaste for success, poor work ethic, or insecurities founded in a lack of self-worth is one of life’s great disappointments. Talent and acquired skill needs to be applied to have any merit and those who ignore the possibilities when so many others would relish having those skills is so unfortunate. These individuals need a bit of encouragement, but even more importantly a push in the right direction.
It is ironic how many individuals fit into this category, not just in the kitchen. How many extraordinary guitarists, singers, pianists, painters, writers, and natural athletes shrug their shoulders when others marvel at their talent. One might say – different strokes for different folks – we all have the right to choose our course in life, but it would also be just as appropriate to state that this might very well be their purpose in life – unrealized.
THOSE WHO DON’T FIT (AT LEAST NOT YET):
Ah…the final group. Yes, we all know of – maybe have worked with, or God forbid – worked for a person who fell into the position of chef without any business being there. It could very well be a case of whom they know or how great they are at deceiving those above, but in some cases they are simply promoted too early to their level of incompetence. This is commonly referred to as the Peter Principle. To those who find themselves there through deceit – then failure is imminent and well deserved. To those who have the best intentions, but were given a carrot well before it reached maturity are oftentimes scarred for life because of their inability to rise to the challenge.
The question is where do you fit? What drives you to strive for success and how do you approach the job of chef? How do others perceive you and your performance and is there merit to this perception? Interesting questions.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**PHOTO by Kristin Parker Photography