So often today you hear of this person or that person being called a “Chef”. It has become a source of irritation, like a reoccurring abscess, to see people misuse this respected title just because the guy or gal is cooking and wears a chef’s jacket. This irritation becomes further inflamed by T.V. shows, like those often viewed on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel, where people who wouldn’t make a pimple on a real chef’s butt are entitled as such by the show producers. It’s like saying “I’m the chef at Burger King” Don’t even get me started on the show “Master Chef” created and hosted by that self-appointed “King of the kitchen” Gordon Ramsey, famed “chef” of Hell’s Kitchen. He’s a black eye to the real culinary professionals.
I might not think twice about the term being used haphazardly were I not a professional chef by trade and by passion. My father was the culprit who destined me to peel potatoes, cut my fingers, burn my skin, and thrive on stress like a crack addict. He was also responsible for the countless memories I have been able to provide my hungry diners, the edible artwork that takes hours and days to create and only minutes and seconds to devour, and the work ethic which allows me to stand on my feet for 12-14 hours at a time in hot kitchens while others outside those walls relax, play and gorge their bellies. My father would have made Mr. Ramsey look like a fallen soufflé’ or a thunderstorm with no thunder. His knives were like razors, but none of them as sharp as that which he used to taste his food. He didn’t have to rant and rave or holler to get his point across. His ability to direct a kitchen or shatter a young cook’s ego came with few words and much presence. The kitchen might be altogether noisy, filled with coworkers talking, laughing or arguing, but the sudden silence of a confessional let you know that he had entered the kitchen. Those that had the talent and tenacity to work for him did so for long periods and sometimes for less pay than they could get just across the street. It was an honor to be his employee and by the same token, there was little he would not do for those who harbored such loyalty.
I believe the reason for his success as an Executive chef stemmed from the fact that he was part of a dying breed that had come up through the culinary ranks during a time when everything was done by hand. This meant that a hotel or kitchen that might nowadays employee 5-10 workers had to have 15-20 to accomplish the same menu. They simply didn’t have the conveniences that today’s chefs have. If you wanted beef, you had to go to the slaughter house and choose the sides of beef that suited your needs and have them shipped to your location. Then you had to have one or more butchers on staff to process the different cuts you chose to provide to your customers. Buy some oil for the deep fryer?? No, no, you render the fat from the beef trimmings. Buy the boneless skinless chicken breasts you need for an upcoming party?? Better sharpen that boning knife because you’re going to debone what may be hundreds of chickens a day. Every day. Chefs didn’t buy breads of desserts; they employed bakers and pastry chefs on staff who got to work around 2-3a.m. before everyone else. Fruits and vegetables and herbs were often times hand selected at the local produce warehouse 2-3 times a week. Seafood?? Delivered whole, never filleted prior to shipment, and usually fresh. Many kitchens had their own smokers. These smokers weren’t like the ones you find at Wal Mart or even at the local BBQ cook off. They were rooms that were designed to store hundreds of pounds of meat at a certain temperature. If they wanted bacon or ham, they butchered their on hogs and cured the meat. Prior to the automated dishwasher, it took a team of employees to wash the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dishes, glasses, and sliver ware that mat be soiled in a day’s use. That’s not to mention the pots and pans that became scorched while a mindless cook stepped out on the back dock to suck down a few puffs from a cigarette before heading back to an already long shift. I could go on, but unless I’m writing to granite, you get the picture.
My father’s title was “chef”, but truly he could have well been called “Maestro”, for truly to orchestrate the many culinary musicians, conduct the symphony of kitchen duties and details, and produce the sound of satisfied customers, who upon leaving, were planning a return visit for the next performance, it required the skill of a man that wore many hats and fashioned a tempered baton. He could communicate fluently with Hispanic dishwashers without speaking a word of Spanish. He could charm a 95 pound waitress into stacking 8 full plates to a tray and carry them tableside without dropping a single one. He could convince a patron who came in for salad to enjoy a Porterhouse steak with all the trimmings, including dessert. He did all of the afore mentioned without ever throwing one sauté pan or calling within earshot a “stupid cow”.
My professional admiration for my father is clear as fine crystal and was shared by many, even those that still carry the scars of his formidable tongue. This is the reason for my reoccurring abscess each time I realize the abuse through ignorance of the title “chef”. I once knew a real chef. The greatest compliment I’ve ever received didn’t come from one of the multitude of patrons I have served. The compliment that still lights my culinary ego lamp came the day my father told me that I was a better cook than he was. Still, to this day, I find it difficult to swallow that most delicious of desserts.