Exactly when did the title of Chef start being applied to every line cook in the restaurant industry? Just because I watch ER and can take my own temperature doesn’t mean I’m a Doctor. Does the guy working the fryer, watches Top Chef and usually remembers to take the mozz sticks out before they explode really get to call himself a Chef? Do I need to call refer to him as the Fry Chef? Apparently.
On a recent consulting gig I ran across a group of BOH employees that were initially insulted because I would not refer to them as Chef, all 10 of them, including the guy popping mozz sticks at the fryer, the guys rolling pizza shells too thin and even the guy in the dish pit. When I asked where they went to culinary school, only one actually had any sort of culinary education. He was expelled from a community college culinary program due to some unfortunate incident that involved a kitchen knife & an instructor. This particular kitchen was a franchise unit that allowed no experimentation or deviation from the corporate menu. The term “further processed” would fit most of the items in the walk-in and freezer. These guys mostly heat things up and put them on a plate, but in their minds they are Chefs.
Now, I certainly didn’t want to discourage any aspiring Chefs. I was there to help get the Operations back on track and build some morale. After putting hair nets on the two guys that forgot their uniform hats, re-introducing them to prep and par lists, reminding them that they had to change their gloves after handling raw meat and before putting the LTO on the bun, I got to work. To encourage their culinary dreams, we even had a competition where they showed off their skills by creating their own specialty pizzas. I applauded their creativity even if I silently questioned the palate of some of the competitors.
I talked to a couple of them about their culinary and educational plans. The most serious of the bunch informed me that he planned on going to culinary school in France…as soon as he gets his GED next fall. I actually looked online and found the twenty year old some non-credit culinary courses he could take at the local community college. Apparently learning Knife Skills or Basic Sauces were not interesting enough prospects for this future James Beard Foundation Award winner.
Shockingly, they began to refer to me as Chef, as well. The Expelled Culinary Student told me that to them it was a term of respect and I had somehow won their respect. I let them know that I was not a Chef and they should just refer to me by my first name. For the record, I did not show up in one of my corporate logo-ed Chef coats, wearing Dansko clogs and carrying my fancy roll of Chefs knives nor did I ever attend culinary school. I have worked in Operations, R & D and Training for some impressive restaurant companies. But, I’m not delusional enough to think that I’m actually a Chef. The guy on the fryer…well, he’s another story!