Nowadays a question I am often asked is: “Why is it so difficult to understand cooks and chefs?”  The answer, quite simply, is – you can’t understand a cook unless you are or have been one.  That may seem like a copout, but it is true.  Take a look into a cook’s eyes, really look beyond the surface and you will see a complex assortment of challenges, pride, experiences, insecurities, and troubled waters which are held together by the thin strings of the apron around their waist.  This may not be the case for all, but it surely is true of most.

Look past the façade – that sometimes crusty, occasionally moody, swashbuckling and seemingly pretentious person wielding sharp knives and hot pans – you know – the person who can smile one minute and then curse you out the next and try to see a bit below the surface.  There is no reason for this split personality – right?  People should leave their baggage at home when they walk through the threshold of a job – push aside those things that haunt them and be sharp and bright, focused and passionate, and committed and intent.  This is what we would like to expect, but is it possible?  Look beyond the surface and connect with the cook’s eyes – try to see what’s inside before we judge and discount.

Get over it, be in the moment, concentrate, push aside that dark cloud and be positive!  Managers and owners throw these words around freely without digging past the effects and looking at the cause.  Am I being too protective and not cognizant of the demands of the job and the environment of the workplace?  Maybe, but I am trying to be real.  In some cases, there is no excuse; some people are just miserable by nature and they use the limited power of their position to make everyone around them miserable – I get that.  Some people are full of themselves and couldn’t care less about how their mood and actions impact others – I know this is unfortunately true; but there are far more people than you imagine who are simply carrying a heavy load of emotional baggage that is hard to shake off.  Look into their eyes to try and see who is behind that tied apron.

This is not a scientific study, but rather a review of the fifty years I have spent around cooks and chefs, kitchen crews and service staff, food operations of all types and people from all types of backgrounds who tie on that apron or deliver a guest’s plate of food.  What I have personally found among those people whom I respect and enjoy being around is an interesting case study.

[]          Think about the type of person who seeks the job of cook or the career of chef.  He or she is typically drawn to the kitchen for some very specific reasons:  It is a safe place where judgement is not the norm – if you can do the job, you belong.  He or she is the type of person who either is or truly wants to be – creative.  The kitchen provides an environment for creative people and a petri dish for those who want to learn to be so.  The kitchen is a place where organization prevails and as such it attracts those who either are or very much need to become organized – some semblance of structure.  The kitchen is a place where team becomes a reality even for those who have rarely found a way to become part of something larger than themselves.  And this is a place where hard physical work allows you to feel good about what took place over a 10–12-hour shift.

[]          Many cooks inadvertently seek a little pain and self-abuse as a way to feel alive.  They crave the physical muscle pain after standing for a full shift, working in conditions of excessive heat, constant noise, and the pressure of timing so that they can actually feel as if they paid their dues.   As strange as this may seem – it is real.

[]          Many cooks are lonely people – sometimes by choice, while oftentimes for other reasons of fear and angst, poor self-esteem, or a history of not fitting in.  While in the kitchen they find solace in the camaraderie and purpose that for a 10-hour period makes up for the loneliness that remains once they punch out.  Afterall, the schedules and work hours required are socially isolating.

[]          A good portion of the cooks and chefs I know and worked with are terribly insecure in their abilities.  They compensate by putting on airs of over-confidence, egotistical swagger, and “I can do and say what I want” musings.  Underneath they know that it would be hard to back up those surface appearances. 

[]          The job itself is difficult at best.  The conditions are not conducive to bright and shining attitudes – this is not an excuse – it is reality.  Heat, physical work, danger, time pressure, being judged by every plate that ends up in the pass and knowing that the success of your peers is based on how well you execute your work – all of this combined make for a pretty abrasive stew.

[]          Sometimes a cook or chef is there because they chose the path long ago.  It was what they were meant to do and provided the incentives that creativity and purpose offer.  Many others, probably the majority, found themselves in the kitchen out of necessity.  The kitchen pirates and vagabonds who are good at the craft, confident in their abilities, and less than enthusiastic about their position in life do abound in the kitchens of America.  Yes, we have our share of crusty misfits, the ones that could only wind up in kitchens and would be a square peg in a round hole anywhere else.  These are the people that become the backbone of the operation because they are competent but may find it easy to walk of the job without notice, be insubordinate, give the rest of the restaurant the sting of their anger, and might even occasionally fail to show up to work for no particular reason.  Yes, they are there, and they are part of the kitchen stew because the kitchen will always welcome them.

Look into their eyes, get past the façade and start to separate effect from cause.  Try as we may to change the formula, it always comes back to those unique individuals who are willing and able to tie on the apron.  It is the chef’s primary job to build a balanced team, understand the mix of people who make up a kitchen crew, look deep into their eyes and provide the empathy and structure needed to keep the band together.    When we fail to understand this and lead in a manner that is people-centric, then the results will always be rocky at best.  When this works, the band will play beautiful music together.

The Moody Blues once wrote:

“And the sounds we make together
Is the music to the story in your eyes
It’s been shining down upon me now, I realize”

When we realize what we are working with and take the time to look to the story in a cook’s eyes, we might just find a way to build something special. 


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2 responses to “THE STORY IN A COOK’S EYES”

  1. Chef I love all that I’ve read.

    In my opinion, I think everything you’ve said is true, but not for a majority of individuals who have joined in this thing I call “organized chaos”.
    The restaurant kitchen has changed because the individuals now working in them are not the same as when I started (over 30 years ago).
    The kitchens I’ve worked in were pirate ships, now, they are cruise ships.

    Thanks for everything you write. Brings back memories.

    1. Mostly, I have to agree with Keith. The point of contention is one of perspective. I had thought that I joined a pirate ship, but it’s nope a kin to a sinking garbage scow.

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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