Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Everyone's a Chef

originally posted Monday, January 7, 2008


It wasn't long after I moved to San Francisco, where one chef put it, "chefs are treated like royalty," that I began to realize that my culinary experience in no way made me special. In a world rapidly becoming populated by self-proclaimed "foodies," (as well as those whose interest in food has yet to lead to such sort of self-characterization), much like an invasion by body snatchers, you can't throw a pork chop without hitting someone who knows 6 ways to cook it and a couple dozen options for sauces, sides and seasonings. The City is a foodie capital, and that's saying a lot, since, as far as I can tell, foodyism is an international phenomenon.

What is a chef anyway? Prescriptivists demand that only the cook who is in charge of all of the aspects of a restaurant's performance is a chef, or the "chief." The French word means just that, after all, and the French translation of the song "The Leader of the Pack" goes, "le chef de la bande."

Of course, contradictorily, those same prescriptivists might also argue that anyone who has graduated from culinary school has earned the title. And what about personal chefs?

I take the word pretty loosely. Like the word punk, as in punk rock. I grew up with some pretty hard line punks who insisted that bands like Green Day were definitely NOT punk, thereby graduating the word from a noun to a qualifying adjective (i.e. "he's more punk than me"). To me, chef is like that. If you demonstrate cooking prowess, I may not say that was very chef of you, but I will refer to your chef-like qualities by nicknaming you "chef." Ironically, because of my personal rebellion against the brigade system in professional kitchens, I prefer to refer to actual professional chefs by their first names.

As consulting chefs for ChefsLine, the Culinary Hotline, my colleagues and I take a certain amount of cheesy pride in our slogan-promise, "We bring out the chef in you."

And look at that TV show "Take Home Chef." If that guy owns a restaurant or keeps an executive chef position somewhere, I don't know about it. On that note, however, I guess it's fair to say that most of the celebrity chefs on TV can indeed be linked to at least one successful restaurant. Or magazine? Or whatever food and cooking organism qualifies to have an executive chef slot to fill (Cat Cora is executive chef for Bon Appetit Magazine, for instance).

On a side note, the same chef I mentioned above, who said San Francisco treats chefs like royalty, told me that Bon Appetit magazine and the Bay Area-based Bon Appetit catering company used to be managed under the same roof, but shortly after their mutual inception their link was reduced to the name only. [shrug]

I define chef as fancy cook, plain and simple, even if said chef only graduated from, to quote another chef I know, "the culinary school of hard knocks," and has never even actually been in charge of an outfit. As for me, I have been in charge of a few restaurants and bakeshops, but I never went to culinary school. I learned everything I know about cooking on the clock, and at home, and have opted instead for a classical education in letters and literature.

Good thing I still got my day job. { ; ~ o >

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