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Random Thu Oct 10 2013

Finding the Meaning of "Chef" and "Food Writer"

chef.jpgFor the longest time, I romanticized chefs -- tattooed, solitary rebels living off six-packs, cigarettes and half-eaten Whoppers. With their black-n-white bandanas and stove scars, they were the vulgar pirates of the kitchen that enabled the ship to glide effortlessly across the sea. And for some, this concept remains true. But in my endeavors to understand chef culture (which stems from an abnormal, teenage-like fascination with crossbones and whiskey), I've realized the concept of a "chef" is frustratingly complex.

Not too long ago, I would've vehemently disagreed with Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard's statement: "Though the contemporary cliché surrounding the "chef narrative" is that they are the "new rock stars," it is largely a romanticized version of professional chefs stoked by the ever-increasing fascination with commodified foodie culture, and is reified by a performative rebellion that isn't linked to any substantive notions of danger."

Bullshit. Chefs were late-night vampires who plated salmon ceviche for privileged philanthropists, but drank blood in the kitchen. They were the true, honest artists of the world.

But after attending illustrious galas, touring the back kitchens of restaurants, and chatting with everyone from line cooks to hot shots, my idea of a chef quickly became more nuanced. Is one still a chef if he's on his third cookbook tour and endorsing the latest Hamilton Beach blender? How do I classify people in the private catering business or entrepreneurs in midst of building a restaurant empire? Why do foodies masturbate over Paul Kahan and Stephanie Izard when the people actually prepping and cooking their orders are Latino chefs and fresh Kendall grads? Do Korean mothers stewing soul-warming kimchi chigae in small ethnic eateries still count as chefs? For some reason, I was extremely perturbed that my romantic notion of a chef was compromised. (First world problems, I know.)

rsz_money_inahdn.jpgI partially blame White Heat and Kitchen Confidential; Leonard and Guerrero write that the "'bad boy' chef who is rude, rule-breaking, and crass...is a much hotter commodity than the staid notion of chefs as proper, regimented, and classy." I clung tightly onto my narrowly defined concept because 1) it was easier that way, and 2) because the idea of a "chef" implied solid integrity, ballsy creativity, and indestructible passion-everything that I strove for as a food writer.

With the Internet replete with lousy food blogs (and good ones as well), I vowed to strive beyond quinoa recipes, HOT NEW restaurant openings, or some other lifestyle crap that no one takes seriously. Mark Kurlansky said, "Food is about agriculture, about ecology, about man's relationship with nature, about the climate, about nation-building, cultural struggles, friends and enemies, alliances, wars, religion," and I wholeheartedly believed it. Yes, I would compose extraordinary narratives that would make the JBF judges crumble to their knees in speechless wonder. But just like chefs, I've strayed far from a romantic context.

As with most industries, the restaurant business is a complex interplay between art, fame, and economics. Not all chefs have a culinary background; some don't even speak English. And not all chefs aspire to cook in the kitchen forever, especially for wages that rival those of Chinese factory workers. Living a difficult life for the sake of principle isn't practical, and writing for the sake of pure art is narrow-minded.

And I suppose I shouldn't feel guilty about that. Chefs are rebellious punk rockers with a bad attitude. But chefs are also businessmen, socialites, and underground artists. Some chefs are immigrants while others have barely hit puberty. And food writers are equally diverse -- some will always stick with the best 50 sandwiches in the US while others will write groundbreaking exposes on organic farmers in Baja California. As for me, I'm still discovering my own preference along that spectrum.

 
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Brett Hickman / October 10, 2013 5:14 PM

I'm confused on what this piece was about and why it exists. There's an odd roller coaster quality to the piece - one minute there's a contentious slamming of certain aspects of food culture, then understanding, then passive aggressive responses followed by a form of acquiescence. I'm baffled by what the piece means to do or why it exists.

alan lake / October 10, 2013 7:22 PM

I"ve been a chef for 3 decades- back when we walked through the service entrance, not the stage door. I've also been writing for quite awhile, in fact for this very publication and have been a musician most of my life. I live your three analogies.

I find similarities in all of the disiplines, and is why it's natural for me to move between them. I suggest that there's many points both mentioned and not, that are true and as individual and complex as each one of us are.

Some do it for love or passion. Some for art. Some for fame, although for chefs that's rather new- post food network era. What motivates people to do anything, good or bad, agreed with or not, is up to them. Talent, luck and ethics all play a part whether you're cooking/writing/or playing it.

Chef is an honorific and is earned by years of experience in all facets of the industry. It's also misused by many. If you're running a restaurant, developing menus, understanding p&l statements, training/ hiring/firing staff, sourcing purveyors, continuing your own education, you may be a chef like the Korean mama or Daniel Boulud. If you're doing any less, you're probably a cook, and there's nothing wrong with that. Working the line, recent culinary grads etc... are cooks.

As for writing or music, there's a big difference between Steinbeck and lesser writers, or Elvin Jones and Meg White. And while you may earn a living doing it, it's obvious who the better technician is.

Besides talent It's about human nature. Some people strive for excellence, some take the path of least resistance. That pretty much determines how good you are @ anything, but often has nothing to do with success. Justice is a human concept that has little to do with reality. It's wishful thinking @ best. There's plenty of talented people that never get a break, just as there's plenty lessers that do.

Brandy / October 11, 2013 10:31 AM

"Why do foodies masturbate over Paul Kahan and Stephanie Izard when the people actually prepping and cooking their orders are Latino chefs and fresh Kendall grads? " Loved this line. The argument can be made that the vision was created by the original chef but, then again, no one celebrates the song writers in the music industry either. It's up to food writers to put a spotlight on those actually making the food to change that.

Brett Hickman / October 11, 2013 12:15 PM

The head chef is the writer of the song, though. It's (usually) their vision, their recipes. They work alone or damn near alone crafting a menu, trying and re-trying recipes over and over and over again for months, even years before an opening. You may go into a big restaurant and the chef may just be "expiditing" remember that it took a lot for them to get there more often than not. This is not meant to denigrate the workers making the food, but a lot of the chefs that are now getting the headlines came from working the line and moved their way up at other restaurants before they became who they are today. The one on top is the one who gets the glory. The person in charge of the team in the kitchen is the one who should be praising their workers. Why would it make sense for anyone to write a story name checking the Kendall grad tournant who prepped all of the vegetables that day or the Guatemalan line cook who handles the salads and hops on the fryer to help out? It's about news, it's about what will interest a public. Not saying that the occasional piece on who does what behind the scenes isn't worth anyone's time to write about or read, but that's not how the world works.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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