I have to reach back to 1986 to explain this blog. I had just finished my job assignment as chef to Jack Lang, Culture Minister in Paris, France. Slightly frustrated with the responsibility of running a very tight and conservative, professional French government kitchen – I wrote onto my bucket list:
Journal entry: “March 17th 86 – for two weeks now, I am the head chef with no hands-on cooking responsibilities; simply translating the requests from above and delegating chefs who responding with ‘yes chef’ to any and all orders – a ridiculous and banal system that survived for hundreds of years… I want to be a chef like them, just following orders, blind to creativity, unresponsive to even the most ridiculous requests – repeating a monotone process without curiosity to do it different… demur and obedient beyond a fat dog that’s being force-fed. I want to inhale perfumes from the pots below, the texture of meats and produce passing through my fingers, the steam, heat and sounds of delicious foods prepared right before me… I want my chefs coat to be dirty, my feet to hurt, cuts on my fingers and blisters on the top of my hands from splashing fats and metal pots…”
My bucket list since had grown to 81 items. Things to do, experiences I feel that are important to achieve in my life. Four of them where time-lines. As a fourteen-year old, when I first started this collection of evaluated goals to achieve, I pinned down that I should live to my 24th birthday. That was extended to live another nine years – within reaching the age of Constantine the Great, W. A. Mozart, Richard II, Eva Peron and outlive Jesus… I wanted to survive beyond 33 years of age. On my 33rd birthday I wrote bucket list #50: fittingly setting my new “dead-line” to live to celebrate 50 years. Last July I reached that objective – an incredible journey so far, and I will not extend the silly notion of yet another “survival-goal” – I’m living. I have embraced this miracle as an extension of my experiences and my focus daily is on helping others to enjoy their journey on earth; healthy and happy!
Last July on my 50th birthday, I decided that bucket list #17 was to be tackled. Inspired by the economic comical turmoil and my “in-between-job-time” that I could take two weeks out of my schedule. With a self-applied limited allowance of $100 I would dive into a two week adventure of being a “yes chef”- employee. I signed up with a temp agency that instructed me in how to be on time, how to use their online schedule system, how to show up shaven and smitten whilst representing their image and good standing with kitchens that required cheap help. Most of the attendees in this orientation where students from various culinary schools or simply peeps dabbling into getting any job. The pay was between $10 for “cook students” to $13 for cooks. During that initial meeting I was twice corrected that I was a cook, not a chef… First off, I had to attain a “California Food Handler’s Certificate”. A document I never had, although teaching many chefs the lessons required to obtain this mandatory license to be legible working in the food industry. $10 and a very boring two hours of internet-schooling later, I went to Bargain fair and purchased an uncomfortable synthetic white chef-jacket. $19.50 before taxes. Next off to the second hand store; shopping for shoes, black pants and an apron; $23.50.
With $47 Ieft to pay for gas and food… I was on my way to the temp agency.
My first job assignment brought me to the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. I arrived fifteen minutes early at the kitchen and received a chef jacket (uniform) and a hat. My duties started in the staff kitchen, prepping salads and within two hours the “cook in charge” excused herself and explained that she had to leave early – everything should be easy… The next shift started two hours later, she expressed: “If you need help just ask in the kitchen downstairs”. On the menu was Pasta, baked chicken, various vegetables and maintaining the salad bar and curricular food choices that cater to a >200 hotel staff eating at any given time. She left.
Not intending to abandon my bucket list experience I agreed with a securing “yes, chef”. I marched into the kitchen downstairs and ask the first chef that came in sight if they could help; I played abandoned. It doomed on me that this scenario would make for a perfect hidden camera story. Take a highly qualified chef and put him into the shoes of a cook with no responsibilities and enjoy the experience.
Although everyone in that hotel kitchen was nice, correct and attentive; it was odd being patronized by chefs half my age. The kitchen was run tight, most product was in the control of the executive and the menu selection was impressive. I got hired a second day by the same kitchen, this time to work in the main kitchen – I quickly was recognized for having some technical skills, although I could “feel” the questions lingered in the air: ‘What is this older guy doing here – where did his life go wrong…’ I held my head down. The sous-chef struggled to stack crabmeat onto wasabi lazed pannecotta topped with Avocado while I pondered that this combination of color, flavors and ingredients made little sense. I was not as impressed about the creativity as the sous chef seemed to be: “Is this not genius” he would express – and I thought nah, that’s rather simple and lacks depth and taste – but I responded with an enthusiastic: “yes chef…”! My understanding of creativity is not just acting upon ideas and trying them out – it is the result of something rehearsed, noval, useful and delicious that incloses a wide range of study, experience and respect for palate, rehearsed seasoning; it requires a rebel’s attitude cross beyond limits…
These grey-green stacks of poorly flavored crab cakes on a white base did not impress me.
When at the end of that shift the executive chef said he liked my work, I was flattered – until he asked: “ Have you learned something today”?
“Yes chef” – I responded and went home dog tired, with my feet hurting…
The following day I ended up in downtown Los Angeles; Staple Center. Hired into the staff of Wolfgang Puck’s team. I will never be able to attend a party or eat foods in connection with this company. The food prepared and catered in some of these venues are over-priced, are not prepared in any manner I would consider sanitary and they lack quality. That food served was a faint substitution of an image by “name recognized chef” – These meals are designed for “feeding” far from pleasing any consumer…
Hired again as a cook help under the guidance of a cook with an attitude that befits that poor image of irate kitchen movies. The basic product was cheap (as in quality) and the chef in charge was quick to brag about the logo he had embroidered on his jacket. I find that modernity has suppressed creativity and talent amongst the competitive culinary world. For whom you work is of importance even if there is no interaction with the “grand name” that hired us. Chefs are an extended marionette of someone else’s creativity with absolutely little incentive to self-develop or grow.
I’ll skip the details. Basically we prepared some of the food in the bathroom, which seemed completely acceptable to everyone working here regularly. I had to send frustrated guests away, explaining that this was a food prepping area for today; there would be other bathrooms – I just did not know where. The chef in charge had prepared too little sauce, too little side dishes and we struggled to “stretch” as requested. What originally on the first plates swirled as a salad sauce was on the last plates a smirch of my finger; a faint taste of cheap oil and miserly spices… It had devaporated completely by the time the waiters sat with plates in hand in the hallway, waiting for their call to serve the salad… I withheld my opinions, although they screamed in my head. A very proud German pastry chef with thick accent and Wolfgang’s logo on his jacket asked me to pick up some cake that dropped onto the floor. He too expressed himself to me with this curious question: “Did you learn something today”? It did take me a second, but I responded: “Yes chef”…!
With all the ego and that fancy logo on your chef’s coat, I cannot fancy why you exhale so much self-esteem, while preparing food in a bathroom!
During the first week I agreed to cook for a food festival held off Sunset close to Malibu. I would be one of six cook-stations with a BBQ grill. The lady client assigned to me communicated with me on the cell phone multiple times to discuss how I was to prepare her food. She insisted I needed to know she was a Republican. Why was that important? She expressed she disliked Bell peppers. “People don’t like bell-peppers. Don’t use them!” “Yes Ma’am”!
It would be a job assignment after my two-week bucket period – let me write about it later. During the second week I was assigned to a beautiful resort hotel in Laguna Beach. By now I had long outspend my $47 budget. Although Here I was hired as a cook with a $13/hour salary. By the time I fueled my SUV (shame on me…) and arrived back in Hollywood, I barely would generate over $25 in my hands… Working in this kitchen was really nice. The Sous chef took me aside within the first ten minutes and expressed he was sorry but; “…you have to take that ear ring out, our executive does not allow any visuable tattoos nor jewelery…”
“Yes chef” I responded. In a way I wanted to comfort him with an “…it’s okay, that’s his way expressing he is in charge…” It’s meaningless to the better good of the world…” – but heck, I was a cook; so I removed my stud.
Soon they discover I had some experience. Unlike the Hotel kitchen in Beverly Hills, creativity was encouraged here, practiced and shared. The chef responsible for house-made sausages was a truly talented soul with an artistic sense for spicing and technique. Lovely! Like most kitchens that hire me to train chefs in menu development I cannot shut-out my sense for realizing where mistakes could be tweaked to a better outcome. Storage, re-usage and fusion are still foreign to many chefs – especially when bothered with inflexible rules and narrow ideas about national Cuisine. Here too the kitchen lacked tidiness and clear direction. I can recommend that food prepared here is delicious, of great quality and quite tasty. I would add a touch of Asian Fusion, just to expand their already rich selection and enable tools of methods that trigger even more creativity… but I’m a cook today.
My experiences as a cook help were humbling, to say the least. I will never give in to this urge again, cured from the notion that “a chef with no responsibility” would be simple. I love being in charge and foremost being the compassionate and encouraging chef most of these kitchens lack. I brag not with the logo on my jacket but the fact that after more then 30 years as a curious chef in the kitchen. I have never yelled at another chef. I have gotten some close to tears, digged into their sensitive minds and challenged them beyond what they thought was already good – just to show that there is no limit to being better – there is no such thing as a perfect chef. The abilities to expand and adapt within the realm of preparing food for others is an unlimited journey. Any chef acting within a limited frame work is merely a handicap to the talent of others. Don’t aim for “name and rang” as I have worked with fascinating chefs that had no professional schooling but a natural sense for beauty, food and taste.
The questions about my being in that kitchen became too much to hide on my fourth day. When the chef told me they would love to have me full time on the team I was flattered and amused at once. I did tell him I had a “reason” for being there. I did felt awkward, standing there in my dirty polyester chef jacket trying to explain my bucket list #17… Especially when I heard myself saying: “You have a very nice kitchen, good people and delicious menu, chef…” Too much words, I agreed immediately…
That eve I went home and send my resume and picture over to that slightly neurotic lady requesting my info for the food festival. I figured that now that I had done my two weeks as a cook I could reveal my true persona. But the name (my own) on my jacket made no difference to her: To her I was just another cook under her supervision. I bought the best Angus Tri Tip and paid out of my pocket beyond the miserly budget she provided. I would have to uphold her quality. The day of the event I received a call from her why I was not there setting up yet: “I’m all ready to go, on my way – no worries, I have done this professionally for thirty years…”
“Not cool” she responded – “…not cool, get over here immediately, I really don’t like this…”
During the festivity a client praised the meat, tasting like Kobe. I turned around from the BBQ corrected him: “No, it’s Angus – Tri Tip, not Kobe…”
He pointed to the poster outside the booth were it was mentioned I had cooked for Kobe Bryant. That lady had actually used my resume to promote her business:
“Oh you cooked for fancy people… you must be a very good cook”!
One last time, holding back any expressions of emotions I looked at the guest with a big smiles on my face and said: “Yes, ma’am, chef actually…”
“Oh yes, I forgot, a cook is not a chef, sorry…” She walked off.
Gosch, that felt so good! – I will never wish to be anything less; not even for a day!