“We must never forget that we are cooks.” That was a quote from Chef Andre Soltner when he addressed the audience attending an ACF Convention in, I believe Phoenix a couple decades ago. That statement, in its simplicity was a benchmark for how each of us who works in a kitchen should address our careers. Push aside the pomp and circumstance that the media has tried to create over the past few decades, a message that many of us have embraced; a media message that somehow chefs are to be held on a pedestal that is far removed from the job we do, a job that drew us to the kitchen in the first place – to cook. In this role we have a chance to create incredible, important, and lasting memories that are far more important than stars, diamonds, and accolades from Trip Advisor or Yelp.
Of course, there are many wonderful benefits that came from the attention given chefs and their position for some time now, but in the end, it will be this connection to the job of cooking and the ability to create memories that will serve as our legacy. It need not be award winning menus, although it might – what is most important is the impact of that meal. Think about those food memories that are imbedded in our subconscious: it could be a wonderful tasting menu that was themed and connected to a guest or organization. A menu where each component, every preparation, and each presentation make that connection. That menu and the meticulous way that it was designed and executed will live with guests and those who prepared it for an eternity. It might be a much simpler farmer’s dinner where each ingredient was still warm from harvest and the person who nurtured those ingredients is given a stage to showcase his or her caring work. Maybe it was that incredibly simple sandwich in a brasserie across from the Louvre in Paris – a sandwich unlike the complex ones we tout as excellent in the U.S. – just extraordinary bread, probably a fresh baked baguette, with cultured butter, and paper-thin slices of jambon (ham). The crunch and chew of the baguette, the slightly sweet and creamy fresh butter, and the appropriate saltiness and “melt in your mouth” texture of the ham give you pause. Now this sandwich, in its simplicity, will be remembered as one of the best you ever consumed and represents the pride of the farmer who raised the pig, baker and the sandwich maker. Quite possibly, it could be an order of frog legs dredged in flour, and lightly sauteed in clarified butter, garlic, and lemon from Andre Soltner’s former kitchen at Lutece and served by a gentleman waiter who had been proud of his craft for more than 50 years. All memorable.
Maybe, it was a perfect bowl of Bolognese and Bucatini with grated parmigiana presented at your table in a tiny Montepulciano, Italy trattoria with a glass of a young, vibrant Nebbiolo. Or an order of three handheld tacos of braised goat and queso fresco at a cantina counter in Mexico City with a shot (or two) of Mescal tequila. That cappuccino that you relished from a coffee shop in the North End of Boston, the heart of the Italian neighborhood was the best you ever had; a cup of coffee so extraordinary that after twenty years you still talk about it. A bowl of gumbo from the French Quarter in New Orleans is always on the top of your list as is an order of Blue Point Oysters in a small oyster shack somewhere on the New England coast. All memorable.
It may not always be from the list of extraordinary ingredients or exceptional kitchen execution, sometimes the meaning goes much deeper than that. It could be an attempt to replicate that chicken and dumplings that your grandmother prepared with such love and dedication. The chicken “had to be young”, the stock rich, and the dumplings dropped gingerly into the cast iron Dutch oven at just the right moment to protect their tenderness. A cook may spend his or her lifetime trying to replicate that for restaurant guests. Or it might just be that moment in time when food and survival are closely linked. Where hope was as much on the table as the food served. It could be that simple cheese sandwich and piece of polished fruit handed to a refugee fleeing Ukraine and landing inside the border of Poland. That sandwich prepared by volunteer cooks working for Jose Andres World Central Kitchen, an organization that knows in the darkest of times, it might just be a simple meal that helps those impacted feel that it’s going to get better. Or a bowl of minestrone served to a homeless person at a local soup kitchen as the cook who volunteers on his day off to simply give a hand, smiles and offers a greeting. The look in a person’s eyes when handed the sandwich, or bowl of soup is powerful and incredibly memorable for both parties – the one receiving and the one giving. This is what it means to be a cook.
When we tie on an apron, we take on the responsibility to create memories for others. It is incredible to think that what we do is so important. We provide a chance to find hope, to feel good, to enjoy life, and to register memories for a lifetime. Each of you has a portfolio of those memories and each of you has been responsible for building them for others. This is what we do, this is why our job is so important and so fulfilling. Making memories – the job of a cook.
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