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Painted in Waterlogue

Every chef has experienced it and as a result he or she will relate to the content of this article. There are times, possibly many times, when you question your own skill – whether in cooking or presenting food, or even with the operation of a kitchen. You have likely been on the receiving end of a plate of food that is just so damn good that it first gives you pause, then amazes you, makes you angry for a brief moment, and then finally makes you question whether or not you are really worthy of wearing a chef’s toque.

This same reality happens to artists, musicians, writers, designers, architects, woodworkers, and a suitcase full of craftspeople. I remember two specific examples with the late guitarist – Jimi Hendrix.

When asked about playing the blues – Hendrix stated:

“The blues are easy to play but hard to feel.”

Hendrix

pans

This paid homage to those blues musicians who stood apart from all others: BB King, Albert King, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Howlin Wolf, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, and Aretha Franklin to name a few. It is what is felt and experienced deep down inside that made these individuals stand out as accomplished and authentic. They were one with what they played and sang. There are tens of thousands of blues players who would automatically feel inadequate when standing next to these greats.

It was early in his career that Hendrix spent time in England building his chops and forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience when he somehow finagled his way on stage to play alongside Eric Clapton and Cream. During this mind-blowing concert – Hendrix embarrassed Clapton, who up to this point was considered the greatest guitar player in the world. Clapton walked off the stage and said that he suddenly questioned his ability to play guitar next to this man who obviously was his superior as a musician, master of the instrument, and showman. Obviously, Clapton continued on – but it was that moment when he, just like many of us in the kitchen, questioned his or our own abilities.

I consider myself an acceptable chef from the perspective of cooking, respectable at food presentation, and better than average at running a kitchen operation. All in all – I can do the job. I learned very early on that there are thousands upon thousands of chefs who are far more talented as cooks, many who are way more artistic, and a considerable number who run a better, more systematic kitchen than I. I am OK with that and never tried to proclaim that I was any better than that. There were many times when I was humbled by a bite of food that left me in awe of a chef’s talent, many times when a chef’s food was so beautiful that I felt embarrassed to admit that I also was a chef, and numerous times when I recognized a chef who was stellar at running a profitable, well mannered kitchen that made me very jealous. At the same time I always thought, and oftentimes acted on finding out why that food, that presentation, that operation was so much better and how I might learn and grow from the experience. These are some of the things that I learned:

[]         YOU CAN’T REALLY PLAY THE BLUES UNLESS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED THE BLUES

All of those musicians whom I listed, and hundreds more, are able to amaze us with their talent of expression. Their talent goes well beyond instrumental prowess – it is all about channeling feelings and experiences that connect with that prowess. Hendrix felt it, Ella Fitzgerald felt it, Buddy Guy felt it, and so does Shaun Brock, Stephanie Izard, Dan Barber, Dominique Creen, Rick Bayless, John Folse, David Chang, Keith Taylor, Alain Passard, and many other chefs who hold the key to authenticity in cooking. The common thread is a deep understanding of what they are working with, the history behind ingredients, people, and process, and a sincere love for what they do. Being a chef is never just a job to them – it is an expression of who they are and what they know. You can sense it when you walk into their restaurants, when you sit at their table, when the server proudly presents the menu, when the line cook receives the order and the plate is presented in the pass, and you know it when you take that first bite. It is no different than when Hendrix played that first note of “Little Wing”.

[]         YOU CAN’T ADJUST FLAVOR UNLESS YOU KNOW AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS YOU USE

“What does it need” – is oftentimes the consummate question that a cook asks the chef. How do you know – really? “It needs salt”, or “More heat, more acid, some butter to provide a smooth mouth feel”. What the dish really needs is far more complicated, far more interesting, and far more connected to a real understanding of the dish, the cuisine, the history, and the terroir. What does that Hoppin John need is something that Sean Brock might answer appropriately since he has made the study of southern beans, spices, and culinary culture his life’s work. What does that taco really need is something that Rick Bayless might answer by first asking about the type of corn that was used to make the masa for the tortilla or whether the flavor profile you are looking for is based on Mexican heritage or Latino. And Stephanie Izard might very well ask you to talk about the farm where the goats were raised for that braise, what they were fed, and the way that you butchered the animal and handled the meat before cooking. Somehow: “It needs salt”, just doesn’t cut it.

[]         YOU WILL NEVER PLATE FOOD AS BEAUTIFUL AS NATURE AND YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND NATURE UNLESS YOU APPRECIATE ART

To me, it has always been interesting to have a conversation with highly artistic chefs who make beautiful plate presentations. Some are advocates for simply relying on Mother Nature’s palate to combine foods that grow together, pick them at the peak of maturity, and do very little to change them from how the earth intended them to be. Others invest all of their creativity to use those ingredients to duplicate a vision they had – sometimes inspired by nature, sometimes events, and sometimes a parallel presentation that mirrors some experience from their past. In most every case – the chef is inspired by what they see in nature.

I worked with a chef/educator who during his classes on plate presentation made students forage through the nearby woods for branches, leaves, stones, moss, and natures mushrooms to create plate presentations from Nature’s floor. He wanted this to be their roadmap to working with food – follow what Nature offers you first.

[]         THE OPERATION OF A CHEF’S KITCHEN IS NOT A REFLECTION OF OWNERSHIP, IT IS A REFLECTION OF SHARED PHILOSOPHY

Leadership and management are sometimes a chef’s greatest challenge. Chefs tend to be highly focused individuals who have a need to express what they believe through their food and their operations. They tend to demand that others follow what they see as important and cringe at anything or anyone who steps in the way of this vision. These kitchens tend to be tense, always on edge, highly stressful, ready to burn out at any second, and wrought with mistrust and angst. Things get done, but the price to pay is high. You can feel it when you walk in the kitchen, you might even feel it in the dining room – it is not a good feeling. Others (the ones that I believe are far more successful) are chefs who work hard to identify cooks who are confident, yet cognizant of the chain of command; willing to express themselves, but knowing when it is best to simply say: yes chef; and dedicated to a shared philosophy of food, commitment to excellence, and team dynamics. In this case, the chef can reach the same goals, but do so as a unified body that believes in what they are doing. The difference is: “I wouldn’t dare put out a plate of food that fails to meet the chef’s standards” vs. “Why would I ever put out a plate of food that doesn’t meet our collective standards?”

Eamon

[]         THE OPERATION OF A KITCHEN IS LIKE ADJUSTING A RECIPE

Recipes lack soul and fall short on understanding the need for flexibility. Not every tomato tastes the same, not every fish from the sea is the same, and not every berry that the pastry chef uses is cut from the same cloth in terms of flavor. A chef understands the difference, knows what the ingredient at its peak should look and taste like, understands the history of a dish and how a certain profile must be maintained before he or she is able to complete a recipe with predictable results. The same is true with kitchen dynamics. Not all cooks are the same; in fact they may differ depending on the day of the week or their personal circumstances that will impact performance. The chef must know all the nuances of character, empathy, and leadership to get a consistent result from that kitchen crew. Cooks need to understand before they adjust a recipe and chefs need to understand before they proceed with day-to-day operations.

Why does that chef’s food taste so much better than another’s? It is a complex question with complex answers. When the food is right you know it immediately. When the kitchen is running smoothly, it can be sensed from the moment you step through the door.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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