I attended a pock luck dinner party the other night. My wife works as a therapist at our local hospital and the dinner was a gathering of her colleagues, most of whom were self described foodies. Just before dinner was served I took over one of the ovens in order to heat up a Moroccan chicken dish that I had made for the occasion. Along with my dish there were several others which needed to be warmed and one of them was a batch of blanched green beans and almonds. When I offered to warm the beans for the guest who made them he expressed concern that I might burn them. “Don’t worry I’m a professional chef, your beans are safe”. I promised.
Noticing that my friend was not placated, I added the fact that as a young chef I had been threatened with my life many times by older chefs who had given me the responsibility of cooking thousands of dollars of meat at a time, and a few green beans did not scare me. He seemed relieved and graciously allowed me to take over. In the end his beans were perfectly warmed and all was well.
After dinner the bean guy asked me what I thought of Gordon Ramsey and all the other chefs who seem to take pride in yelling at other chefs on national television. I responded by saying that I thought most of it was a choreographed crock of #*^% designed to enhance ratings. Not to mention the fact that when these young chefs do get screamed at, the common reaction seems to revolve around tears, whining and temper tantrums, which is something that would never happen in the professional world.
This of course forced me to explain what my thoughts were on kitchen discipline and where I thought the line should be drawn in kitchens today. First of all, it’s true that kitchens can be hot beds of temper and abuse. If you put ten people in a super heated environment and work them fourteen hours a day at break neck speed, something is bound to happen, but there are some parameters.
I began my training as a chef in the mid 1970’s long before the notion of kitchen rock stars came to fruition. When I was learning how to cook the focus was much more centered on getting the food out and paying rent, than it was on getting a James Beard award. Cooking was considered to be a thankless profession that paid nothing and took everything, including your soul. Its true I was yelled at quite a bit when I was coming up the ranks, but the yelling was centered much less on my being an idiot than an overall desire us to get the job done quickly and efficiently. In short, the chefs I worked with acted much more as coaches to a football team that needed to be pushed, than today’s moto of humiliation for the sake of it.
In the old days (I sound just like my father) if you could not cook like a monster already, you would not be working in the kitchen to begin with. There was no pussy footing around, us cooks were there to make money and nothing more. If you could not cut muster in a kitchen you were fired long before there was any reason to yell or question your skills. And this I believe is the major difference today in the world of food.
Because of the wild popularity the food industry has enjoyed in the past twenty years or so, there is a whole new breed of kitchen worker. Suddenly it has become very respectable for our sons and daughters to become chefs and subsequently many kids are entering cooking schools and restaurant internships instead of the usual college route. Consequently you now have younger middle class kids entering the work force that are hell bent on becoming celebrities. And sadly they expect to do this without having to slog through the many years of hard core kitchen experience required to become a well rounded chef and leader. Consequently, these kids are a tough bunch to deal with for several reasons.
Until recently I taught at several cooking schools. I say until recently because after a few years I could not justify the effort any longer. I became deeply disheartened by the level of talent entering these schools and the effort I expended trying to make these kids into chef began to seem like a waste of time. This is not to say that all schools are filled with boobs. Not at all, in fact there are some very talented people attending cooking school today. The problem is that the percentage of talent is very low and there seems to be no basic skill level requirement to get into cooking school. Basically if you have the tens of thousands of dollars to attend, you’re in. This of course is wonderful for the cooking schools because they are raking in the money, but it is terrible for the kids, because they are coddled and lead to believe that they have a chance in one of the toughest industries on the planet.
As a teacher I tried everything to get the students motivated. I tried kindness and support, which made for a pleasant but very slow kitchen experience. I tried the rough and tumble fast paced motivational tactic, which made for a very nervous and disorganized kitchen. And then I resorted to the Gordon Ramsey school of humiliation and all I got was tears, death threats and tantrums. In the end I simply gave up and left the cooking school gig to instructors who were willing to play the game for the games sake.
I myself attended cooking school after six years previous kitchen experience and I sucked the information up like a sponge. In my kitchens today I try to lead my team with fairness and firm direction, because that is what it takes to get the food out to the customers. I insist on organization, cleanliness and attention to detail, because there is no other way. I myself will work as hard, or harder than anyone on my team in order to achieve these goals because that is what it takes.
The art of working in the food industry is not about rocket science, it is about hard work and diligent effort to achieve the common goal. Unfortunately this is often hard to come by in a culture fixated on instant gratification. Until that changes, I guess chefs like Gordon Ramsey are going to have to yell there brains out.