Americans who find themselves sharing a Bud with Barack at the Iowa State Fair might call the president of the United States by his first name, but the guy who’ll cook them dinner later that night at a restaurant in Des Moines? Most likely he’ll be honored with the title “chef.”
From Hell’s Kitchen to the talk on Twitter, the honorific “chef” is trending these days, as if we’re all ROTC cadets earnestly throwing around “sir.” No, sir. Yes, chef. But why? In a society where practically nobody’s honored anymore by the old social titles or respect—Mr., Miss, or Mrs.—why are we reviving starchy Victorian formality for the supervisor of the line cook who made our pizza margherita?
Partly it’s a generational shift. Especially on the West Coast, professional cooks in the 1980s and early ’90s felt uneasy with the title. They called themselves cooks—proudly. I know this because I cooked in restaurants in San Francisco back then. I was one of them. In that culture, influenced heavily by Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and a handful of the women-run kitchens it spawned, cooks were generally proud to have escaped the jackbooted old French brigade system. I never, ever called myself a chef, and for a long time corrected anyone who called me one. I was a cook.
“Guys in the generation that came before mine,” says Richie Nakano (left), a 32-year-old chef in San Francisco, “they pushed away from it a lot. You talk to Mourad [Lahlou, of Aziza], Daniel Patterson [of COI]: You address them as ‘chef’ and they look at you like, ‘Asshole.’” They’re part of a generation that came up in the militarized system, but they made a break from it.
“They were the last guys to come up in that super-hardcore psychotic yelling world,” Nakano says, “working for these old-school dudes that probably kicked the shit out of them. They wanted this kinder, gentler, ‘I’m a person’ thing in the kitchen.”
THE GUNS OF AUGUSTE
The world has Auguste Escoffier to thank (or to blame) for that shit-kicking kitchen culture. The architect of modern cuisine codified the system at London’s Savoy Hotel in the late 19th century, with the army as a model of structure. Under Escoffier, and in Escoffian restaurants ever since, the chain of command ran down vertically from chef de cuisine to offices including rotisseur (meat roaster), garde-manger (cold dish maker), all the way to commis (entry-level kitchen worker), equivalent of the kid fresh out of basic combat training, and just as ripe for ass-beating by corps veterans.
And for the top guy—let’s face it, in 9 out of 10 kitchens these days it’s a man—the title “chef” is the linguistic pin that keeps the entire tower of authority intact. “It’s a respect in the kitchen,” says Tony Garcia, an administrator on the Silicon Valley campus of the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute). Marcus Samuelsson even named his recent memoir Yes, Chef. The phrase serves partly as Samuelsson’s celebration of his own implausible success, like the old Stuart Smalley affirmation on SNL: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Students in culinary school have to call their instructors “chef,” even if it’s spliced onto their first names: Chef Tim, Chef Roger. That’s a distinct Americanism—something tells me Escoffier was never “Chef Auguste,” or that a sputtering Ramsay would never brook “Chef Gordon.”
Maybe it’s because restaurant cooking has become so professionalized; pretty much every cook working above the level of fast-casual these days has gone to culinary school. That could be why “chef” has so much power for any cook under 30.
As for Nakano’s generation, the title of chef comes with its own etiquette. First rule: You never call yourself one—only other people can call you chef. “You spend the first four or five years you’re called that correcting people,” Nakano says. “I still don’t feel that I’ve earned that title, but that’s the title in this business. You learn to accept it.”
Second, chefs who are peers can call each other that, out of respect, the admiration of equals.
Third, it’s what you call a cook you don’t know on a personal level, as a formality, but only a cook who’s achieved a certain reputation, or who runs a kitchen with similar credibility. “Anytime I’m introduced to another chef for the first time, whether it’s on social media or interacting on a personal level, I try to always address them as chef,” Nakano says.
But Samin Nosrat (left), also part of Nakano’s generation, balks when anyone calls her chef. “There something that doesn’t sit right with me,” says Nosrat, who has a long history of cooking at Chez Panisse. “In a way, it’s sort of an act of defiance to call myself a cook.” That’s because she associates “chef” with that masculine, militarized kitchen culture of ass-kicking—“dude cheffery,” she calls it. Nosrat thinks that traditional farmhouse cooking has at least as much to teach her as the professionalized, starched-toque world of Escoffier.
It’s also an acknowledgment that, even cooking at a very high level, working in the kitchen is about always having more to learn. “I might be in charge of a kitchen, but there are so many people who know more than me,” Nosrat says. “In some ways I still feel like I did when I was 19 entering the kitchen. I still feel like I have so much more to learn from people.”
Unfortunately, Nakano says, these days some cooks who recently graduated from culinary school are calling themselves chefs. “If you’re a garde-manger,” he says, “you don’t deserve to be called a salad chef.”
But there might be other reasons to call yourself chef, even if you’re no Marcus Samuelsson. “Young cooks think it’ll get them laid,” Nakano says.
Photo of Richie Nakano by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com. Photo of Samin Nosrat by Aya Brackett.