Sometimes I get a bit lofty in my reflections of kitchen life and the cooks who spend time behind the range. This is probably one of those times – yet oftentimes I can’t help myself. Take the analogies for what they are worth to you.
Being a professional cook or chef is such a contradiction of the human condition. When you walk through a typical kitchen you will see individuals intent on their work, dressed in clean, crisp white uniforms that attempt to hide the tattoos, burns, stitches, crustiness, sometimes vulgar personality who can in one moment lift an 80- pound stock pot from the stove or carry a 100-pound sack of flour the length of the kitchen and in the next moment – carefully and strategically place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a carefully caramelized slice of foie gras mounted on a perfectly cooked filet of beef, complemented by a white china plate painted with a meticulously reduced demi glace. Who is this person?
I was listening the other day to the lyrics of Ann Wilson from the group Heart when she referred to the contradiction and quest of the dog and butterfly. She described the song in this manner:
“When you’re an earthbound creature you’re always jumping and reaching for things we can never really catch, but you try anyway. And that’s the point of the song, you’re always trying to grab at something higher.”
Could it be that the hard work of the dog is all an effort to try and become the butterfly. Is it possible that the hard work of the cook is all in quest of reaching for the perfection of the plates’ art? The dog will be exhausted at the end of the day as it reaches for the butterfly just as the cook will end the day with cuts, burns, sweat, sore muscles and physical exhaustion all in search of that plate perfection.
There are so many contradictions of this type in the kitchen when cooks are viewed from that 10,000 – foot vantage point. Anger and finesse are evident in the intensity that takes place as a cook attacks a relentless list of preparations for service. There is the pressure of time, the need to meet standards, the variables that inevitably come from working with nature’s ingredients that are consistently inconsistent, and the need to depend on others for your own success. At the same time there is that finesse that must come into play when finish cooking demands a level of organization and calm that must be separated from the anger derived from all of those pressures. If a cook is unable to separate the two then the result will be chaos and a finished product that does not reflect what is intended. Angry food will taste angry, yet finesse without the intensity of physical and mental preparation fueled by a touch of anger will often times fall flat.
Anxiety is part of the cook’s chemistry. Stress is a fragile beast that at some level is an important driver sparked by adrenaline, but too much will cause the body to decay and plans to fall apart. When a kitchen is void of anxiety it will appear to be unprepared for the intensity of service and the peace that comes from a well-executed meal service and beautiful plates of food. The contradiction of anxiety and peace seems to be present in every kitchen that reaches for the butterfly.
Despair is present in the eyes of cooks who are within striking distance of those allusive first orders clicking off the POS printer. It is that feeling of impending doom, that mental checklist that reviews all the details of preparation leading to this point, that flood a cooks consciousness. “Did I peel enough shrimp, cut enough steaks, blanch enough vegetables, chop enough parsley or clarify the right amount of butter? Will I run out of anything at the peak rush and if so how will I find the time to prep more when tickets are lining up on the board?” Every cook, at some point, has felt this despair – the sense of everything falling apart. Yet, hope springs eternal, because that mental checklist will, more often than not, lead to a level of confidence: “I’ve got this!” The contradiction of despair and hope is an everyday reality in professional kitchens and although cooks may feel this, they rarely express it – it is internalized.
The visible toughness of a professional cook, the effort that it takes to never show weakness and to tough things out is the sign of the hammer – when things get really difficult cooks just swing the hammer harder and faster. Work through the heat, the back pain, the burns, and the sweat because we are tough – we are the hammer. Sometimes those who do not live the life of the cook become the nail and thus view the cook as irrational, insolent, or simply angry. But then, there are the moments when those same cooks take an extra second to paint on the plate, to express themselves with beautiful and delicious presentations of food that reflect their artistic and caring side. Any respectable cook ultimately cares deeply that the guest who purchased that meal is satisfied and even impressed. It is the contradiction of the hammer and the artistic brush that confuses others and inspires career cooks and chefs.
Work hard, push yourself, attack that prep list, use a hammer if necessary to be ready when the printer starts to talk and then take a deep breath, make sure you are organized, and play your instrument in such a manner as to portray calm, confidence, and true art. The dog will leave the day tired and somewhat dissatisfied in his or her inability to fly, but tomorrow that same dog will try just as hard once again. It is the pursuit of the butterfly that makes the dog complete. The cook will work until he or she is exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional demands of the job and the ongoing pursuit of excellence. But knowing that excellence is hard to achieve the cook will arrive the next day to try once again for perfection on the plate. He or she will work just as hard again – leaving everything they have on the playing field. It is the nature of the person who chooses to be both that tattooed crusty individual underneath with the finesse of the butterfly in crisp, clean white uniform that signs every plate leaving the kitchen.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Reach for the butterfly
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