The "How" of becoming a Chef
I am asked regularly “how did you become a chef”? So I thought I would take you on the fast forward version of the journey a young eager cook must travel before he or she becomes a chef. Ha, fast forward, like, that’s radical.. do you even remember the VCR? Sorry got caught in a Max Headroom, 80’s glitch for a second… totally, like gag me with a spoon! As we set out on this expedition, I think it is important to understand the difference between a cook and a chef and along the way you may smell the how, and I’ll save the How I became a Chef for next week.
Many people believe that you are a chef once you have graduated from an accredited Culinary Arts program and have received your Bachelor Degree in the Culinary Arts. This route is a good option for some, but that makes you as much a chef as buying a new car makes you a mechanic. I never went to culinary school, always planned on it, but as I weighed the cost of the programs vs. learning on the job, I decided to go the O.T.J. training route.
As a young cook, I stood shoulder to shoulder with many culinary school graduates and it wasn’t what they knew that set them apart, it was what they didn't know that did. Becoming a chef is so much more than a punch list of achievements, it is a position of responsibility not all can or want to handle. To be a cook you must obviously know how to cook. Unfortunately, I have met plenty of lousy cooks in my career, but they know how to cook, albeit bad, it was still cooking! These are often the individuals that have landed in this industry maybe by choice or by default and don’t really care what, who or how they are serving food, they are just doing what it takes to collect a paycheck. Unfortunately, this type of cook generally works in a system that does not expect more from them than they are already offering. I do believe that if you want to be a great chef, that you must be a great cook. However, the root of being a great chef starts with being driven to be great. You have undoubtedly heard the saying “the cream rises to the top '', well it does, literally and figuratively. The rich, luscious, decadent, goodness does so naturally, but as is the case in any profession, lawyer, doctor, hairdresser, “the creme de la creme” work their way to the top with passion, drive, diligence and focus as well as they are great at what they do.
When exploring the “how” of becoming a chef, we do need to factor in education, which can come in many forms, accredited programs or on the job training. Since becoming a chef, I have had the privilege of working with several culinary students and one thing I am always reminding them of is that once they leave school, the real education begins. Each and every one of them will still need to get into the workforce and earn their position through the on the job training program employed by each kitchen. They will have to learn the requirements of that organization, the expectations of that chef and the demands of that system and all while earning much less than their loan payments. It is almost impossible to teach all the required flexibility a chef must endure within the structure of school. However, the best chefs are forever students of their industry and profession, constantly refining their technique and advancing themselves. In the traditional French brigade system, there is a military-like hierarchy, with a cook being the infantry and the Chef as the General. In a simpler definition, a cook in fact cooks food, food that has been created by the chef. The chef is responsible for the training of the cooks and setting the expectation for which they perform. A cook prepares and manipulates the food to the chef's specifications. The chef is responsible for the ordering and inventorying of the food product required for the menu created. The chef is ultimately responsible for the guest’s satisfaction and return patronage when in fact he or she may not have even actually handled any part of the guest’s meal during their dining experience. A cook is held responsible for the station at which they work, the sanitation and cleanliness as well as the organization but the chef is responsible to be certain the equipment and fixtures are in working order, regular repairs and maintenance is performed and the facility meets and exceeds the requirements of the health department. While the chef dictates the schedule based on the projected volume of each days sales and required work load, while evenly balanced with extracting maximum efficiency from each employee, it is the cook who must often work under extreme conditions and heavy workload completing the tasks set forth by the chef for each shift, all while cooking food for hundreds of people to enjoy. While a cook often works a shift ranging from 4-8 hours he or she will often work more than one job, while the chef usually begins and ends his day in the same kitchen. In most systems a cook is empowered and entrusted with the food products provided and responsible for helping control waste and theft, while the chef is liable for the end food cost and profitability of the restaurant or outlet.
Now that I have painted the difference in the two roles perhaps I can explain the “How” of becoming a chef. You become a chef by working very hard at being a great cook, by practicing and perfecting your skills each and every day on each and every guest. You must be willing to accept responsibility and criticism, provide encouragement, direction, wisdom and authority. Be willing and ready to react at any time in any way to anything. You must be quick to survey the landscape of each situation, generate and execute a game plan, think quickly when the game plan changes and always keep the integrity of the food in the forefront of that plan. Becoming a chef requires you to maintain a positive and creative presence amidst tough, demanding surroundings. To become a chef you must really want to be a chef.
I do want to say, I truly believe that becoming a chef chose me! I was born to do what I do, I was made to create and entertain through food and I am as blessed as any man can be to do exactly what I love to do every day. Want a little more detail around my origin story? Stay tuned, I’ll get to that next week...like did you know my first job in any kitchen was at my local Chinese restaurant? Meanwhile, here’s what’s happening in the shop:
Last weeks Gumbo was a big hit, my wife did crazy task of capturing some of the steps and labor of love that is Gumbo on our instagram stories @the_meatery. Did you catch that? Feedback was that so good that we will keep that in our rotation but currently we have our local Artichoke Bisque, this is also pays homage to my early years (more on that next week) and working in Castoville at La Scuola Restaurant, anyone reading who made the drive out there in early 90's? Here's a photo of the process, like I said, these things are a labor of love - including what it takes to get all the flavors of the thistle but passing it thru sieve to get out the fibers to produce that rich, smooth decedance of bisque. We sell it by the quart.
We're working really hard to reduce the amount of single use plastic that we currently use. Both for a better for the world aspect, lord knows the “covid crust” of nitrile gloves, and to-go packaging that has been created over the past year… But also as a way to push ourselves and remove the “safety net” of vacuum sealing everything to extend the shelf life. Now, I said we're working on it and with that, you will still see some vacuum sealed items, highly contaminant prone items like our lemon chicken and probably all poultry, but also maybe some of our smoked items like Kielbasa and Linguica. Speaking of sausages, there are two new ones already in the case as this newsletter gets published.
Check out our Filipino inspired Pork Adobo Sausage and a new favorite of mine, the Chile Verde Sausage. We have Toulouse, Cheddarwurst, Irish style Bangers, Bratwurst, Maple Breakfast as well as our Italian varieties. We've taken on the task of making each of our sausages fresh each week. That means we need your help to move through them… Think about making Sunday Sausage night each week and work your way through the line up, and I’m working on an idea for pening another day for Wurst Wednesday's… Which sounds better than weenie wednesday’s right? We’ll see where that goes…
See ya at the Counter!