Fire has so many meanings, but to a cook – it is essential. Cook’s exist because of fire; it is the one ingredient that they cannot work without, the critical ingredient that brings everything together, the literal fuel of the craft. Cook’s apply and control heat, and most importantly, the flame that represents fire in all of its glory and poignant danger. Fire can result in the beauty of the maillard reaction or the destruction of a burn.
When cooks enter a kitchen it is with the resolve to face the fire head on and demonstrate their ability to win the battle for control. When they win, cooks can proudly present a perfect sear, the caramelization of a steak, a delicate sauté that cooks without adding color, or the golden color from deep frying in oil or lard. Just as other professions seek to control their primary ingredient (water, wind, the sun, electricity, kinetic energy, etc.) it is the magnificent flame that stands before every cook and tests his or her ability to understand and master the expected and unexpected power of fire.
“Once fire was discovered, the instinct for improvement made men (and women) being food to it. First to dry it, then to put in on the coals to cook.”
-Brillat Savarin (1755-1826)
Fire has other meanings – it is not enough to learn how to control the physical attributes of the flame, the cook must also understand the emotional, mental, and spiritual nature of the word. Fire in the belly refers to the level of passion that a cook brings to the kitchen and to the craft of preparing food. Is this passion focused or overwhelming, for some cooks and chefs are unable to differentiate their passion for cooking from their uncontrolled anger at themselves and others when the expectation of perfection is not met? This, to many, is much more difficult to face and control than the beauty and danger of the flame.
“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
When a cook is pushed to his or her limit, when those hours add up into a gross example of excess, then the cook is said to flame out or burn out. Just as a flame deprived of oxygen or other fuel will eventually lose the ability to display its power, so too will a cook lose that ability to function, to demonstrate the alchemy of kitchen work.
Fire is also a hyperbole used to describe the emotions of fear, love, desire, and lust, yet there is an honest connection to the intensity felt by both. Cooks are all too familiar with these emotions, not necessarily in relationships with people, but more in relation to food and the skill needed to bring a raw ingredient to a state of preparation that stimulates all of the human senses. When a cook is in control of the emotion of fire then he or she is able to approach the sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Yes, these senses are tangible, but the fire needed to manipulate them through cooking is emotional.
Professional cooks lust over the kitchen skills that others may seem to have (a wonderful palate, incredible knife skills, the ability to multi-task), they love to watch a master at work, fear the inability to compete with others on a busy line, and desire to constantly improve; but it is the control of these emotions that is so critical. Cooks can be emotional powder kegs who sometimes allow these feelings to take the drivers seat. When this happens then fear turns into anger or retreat, lust turns into the defensive maneuver associated with condescending attitudes, and love into jealousy. None of these reactions will result in positive outcomes. The intensity of the kitchen can be so great, the emotions so high, and the stress so intense that the symmetry of work deteriorates and the orchestrated flow of service turns into chaos.
Finally fire in the kitchen refers to a process, a strategy, and even a sophisticated system that every cook understands. It is this process that drives the cook to work with speed and agility, maintain a level of attention that overrides everything else, and an ability to quickly problem solve so as to always maintain the integrity of the system. The process begins with mise en place, works through team, and exists because of confidence in oneself as well as others. Without this fire it would be impossible for a kitchen to present food to guests in an orderly, timely fashion.
So what does a cook need to do to keep fire under control?
Respect the fact that fire can be unpredictable, that fire depends on fuel to act either in a positive or negative manner. The cook may not be able to control the actions associated with fire, but he or she can surely control the fuel that is present.
Understand that fire is always on the edge of good and bad. Know that planning and training are essential with the cook is to maintain the upper hand with fire. Whether the fuel is emotion, systems, adrenaline, or the physical fuel that feeds the flame, it is an understanding of those ingredients that allows the cook to be the driver and not the driven.
 MENTAL ACUITY
When fire is involved (physical flames, emotions, adrenaline) then it is imperative that the cook stays focused and not become diverted from the control seat. Once a cook is distracted from his or her purpose and fails to remain alert to the possibility of the chaos that fire can bring, then what he or she fears the most will inevitably come true.
The best cooks are ones who not only have the technical skills associated with cooking, but are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, in tune with their control points, cognizant of the consequences associated with losing focus, and confident in their ability to either regain control or seek the help needed to do so. They are acutely aware of those people who can help them through a time of faltering control of physical or emotional fire, and that occasional despondent fear of losing their inner fire, but are never afraid to ask for help.
“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
When the fire goes out – the cook is left without the ability to make a true connection to the preparation of food and the beauty of a well-designed plate in the pass. When physical fire is gone then the cook is left without a purpose and when the emotional and orchestral fire is missing then there is a real gap in how that plate is expressed, how it tastes, how it smells, and how it is received. It is the fire that makes a cook a cook, an interesting person who is truly dynamic, and a coworker who inspires others.
“So keep the fire burning tonight
See just what comes into sight
Don’t take forever
Take it through the night”
-Kenny Loggins – Keep the Fire BurningPlan Better – Train Harder
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
*Thank to all of the cooks and chefs in my life who keep the fire burning. You know who you are.
**PICTURE: The Flame by Chef Curtiss Hemm