Lately I have been thinking a lot about my profession as a cook and how it has evolved. I guess I’m somewhat worried for the new breed of chef, as even those who have gone through a formal culinary training seem to have lost the quintessential traditions of what the word "chef" really means. This month with the tragic passing of one of the all-time great chefs, Charlie Trotter, I just felt the need to voice what I have been feeling lately and what I aspire to when I am in the kitchen.
I started my career at quite a young age, cooking throughout my time at school and taking on my first real chef position at the Sydney restaurant, Bistro Moncur, under the tutelage and mentorship of Chef Damian Pignolet. The restaurant earned 2 Hats of 3, Australia’s equivalent to the Micheline Star system. We prided ourselves on classical French technique and our food was executed via a traditional Brigade. The attention was on time honored traditions and systems set by the classic French kitchen. My mentor Damien made sure that the team and I understood the reasons, processes and techniques of what being a chef was all about.
The reason I bring this up is that while I think there are some really talented chefs doing some wonderful things in the kitchen, in most restaurant kitchens nowadays it seems the line cooks, sous chefs and sauciers are just going through the motions, thinking not about the art of cookery and being a great restaurant chef, but, “how can I get my own TV show.” The advent of chef-centric cooking shows has, on one hand, really brought food and chefs to the forefront of today’s culture. But on the other hand, I also think it has kind of dumbed down cheffing and cookery. Very rarely do you see a chef butchering their own whole sides of beef, filleting whole fish, etc. Instead, we’ve become a culture of convenience, with most chefs relying on big supply houses and prepackaged/processed products. I understand of course that in today’s economy, with profit margins being smaller, many restaurants have no choice in order to stay open and viable.
The result though, in my opinion, is that today’s chefs who come out of culinary school are at a disadvantage. They work for head chefs or restaurateurs that have forgotten about mentorship and giving back. And mentoring is not just about the profession, but life as well. Too many young chefs today, without the proper guidance, fall in with the wrong people, live the "party life" and are not taught that the basic tenants of "hospitality without ego." They are never taught that the patron comes first. Many are not being taught the traditions of purchasing, breaking down, and using locally sourced products, especially when the big white trucks roll up and deliver boxes and boxes of already processed, vacuum-packed meats, fish and poultry. Instead of breaking down a whole tuna or butchering a side of beef, young chefs are now simply cutting open a package, seasoning a fillet and throwing it on the grill or in the pan. Still, that’s no excuse. Head chefs need to make sure their young chefs are able to do all the things needed to continue the art of being a chef and to live life with meaning and understanding.
That said, there are still some restaurant kitchens where the chef hierarchy and art of our craft has not been lost. The Brigade still means something. The Executive Chef is still that, the boss. The term "chef" is French and means "boss." I was recently on stage at the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland with Chef Tom Colicchio and he said something very interesting: “If Bruce Springsteen were from France, as he is known as 'The Boss' here in America, there he would have been called 'The Chef.'"
Despite the use of chef in English as the title for a cook, the word actually means “chief” or “head” in French. Similarly, cuisine means “kitchen,” rather than referring to food or cooking generally, or a type of food or cooking.
Brigade de cuisine (French: kitchen brigade) is a system of hierarchy found in restaurants and hotels employing extensive staff, commonly referred to as “kitchen staff” in English speaking countries. The concept was developed by Georges Auguste Escoffier. The Brigade delegates responsibilities to different individuals who specialize in certain tasks. Though there are many more positions than listed below, these are the most common in today’s restaurant kitchens:
Chef de cuisine (kitchen chef; literally “chief of kitchen”) is responsible for overall management of the kitchen; supervises staff, creates menus and new recipes with the assistance of the restaurant manager, makes purchases of raw food items, trains apprentices, and maintains a sanitary and hygienic environment for the preparation of food.
Sous-chef de cuisine (deputy kitchen chef; literally “sub-chief”) receives orders directly from the chef de cuisine for the management of the kitchen, and often serves as the representative when the chef de cuisine is not present.
Chef de partie (senior chef; literally “chief of party”; (party used here as a group, in the sense of a military detail) is responsible for managing a given station in the kitchen, specializing in preparing particular dishes there. Those who work in a lesser station are commonly referred to as a demi-chef.
Apprenti(e) (apprentice) are often students gaining theoretical and practical training in school and work experience in the kitchen. They perform preparatory work and/or cleaning work.
Saucier (saucemaker/sauté cook) prepares sauces and warm hors d’oeuvres, completes meat dishes, and in smaller restaurants, may work on fish dishes and prepare sautéed items. This is one of the most respected positions in the kitchen brigade, usually ranking just below the chef and sous-chef.
Pâtissier (pastry cook) prepares desserts and other meal-end sweets, and prepares breads and other baked items; may also prepare pasta for the restaurant.
We who call ourselves “Head Chefs”, or Chefs de Cuisine have an obligation to give of ourselves with our time, our expertise and our life lessons. When you think about it, you really have to feel sorry sometimes for first year apprentices and chefs. They are often left with little or no information and can easily be discouraged without the proper guidance to help them know what to expect, and how to deal with those expectations. And if we don’t teach them the true art of our craft, we do them, ourselves and our profession a huge disservice. I firmly believe that applies to life as well as career.
I have always been drawn to young, eager minds. Young chefs are enigmatic and they are so easily guided if we just take that bit of time to show them we’re interested in what they are interested in and teach them the proper skills and techniques of being a chef.
When I have a young cook in front of me and I have an opportunity to mentor, or to excite a child about an opportunity of being in the kitchen, they lap it up and I think that I’m just drawn to that energy. I hope that in the years ahead, myself and many of my colleagues don’t forget these truths as we go about our busy schedules of running commercial kitchens. If we, the head chefs of today, hearken back to the time honored traditions, systems and techniques of the chefs who came before us, together we can be a part of properly shaping the head chefs of tomorrow, making sure we introduce them to and teach them The Lost Art of the Chef.