Saturday, July 7, 2012

The 'Need to Feed' vs. The 'Need to Know'

The 'Need to Feed' has been my blog-focused question posed to those in the kitchen and in the game.  Why do you do what you do?  The answers can sometimes be surprising or eloquent, often simple and many times just confounding to some.  Well... The 'Need to Know' is much more practical - what do you Need to Know to be in the kitchen and in the game...?  I heard, vis text, from a former student who is working with Dan Barber at Blue Hill Farm, and he said, when I asked how his experience has been thus far, 'Lots of expectations and stress but I love it'.  Such mania.  Imagine having expectations. 

I ask my students this question; 'What is a Chef?'  Here are some of the usual responses...  Gifted.  Teacher.  Leader.  Artist.  Motivator.  Student.  Craftsman.  You get the idea.   What one-word defition do YOU think best describes a Chef?  It's amusing that the one  descriptor that usually gets left out is 'cook'.  It takes a good cook, too, to be a good Chef.  That's just crazy, huh?!

The chef of today must know so much more than the chef I thought I needed to be in 1983 when I apprenticed in Arizona and then matriculated at CIA.  The following is the list of what a young cook/student needs to know TODAY in order to grow and develop into a Chef.  This is a 'To Do List' - a compilation of what I have been 'teachin' & preachin' about for years and from my observations at the various stages I have been on since 2009 (read the 67 blogs about my time at The French Laundry in  The more I stage in top-notch establishments the more I realize how important these concepts are:

1.  Learn about 'time'.  Not keeping it but working with it.  The clock never stops.  The day may fly by but we must be aware of how much time everything should take to finish.  When a task is completed it is time to move on with another.  When working with food it is easy to become lost in the process, as if we are under a spell.  Gotta move, gotta get going, gotta make it happen...   Do the difficult tasks first and then the easy one's to finish up...  The magical hour is 'service time'. 

2.  Learn to do mise en place - efficiently and accurately.  Embrace the mundane, for much of what we do is the same everyday and entirely necessary.  Choppin, dicing, slicing, knife cuts, tourne, sweating, roasting, grilling, measuring, blending, passing....  Words on paper yet methods and techniques that need to be a part of you and done correctly without fear of intimidation by any number of chefs-in-charge-of-the daily-rituals-in-the-kitchen.

3.  Work clean during mise en place and service.  A clean and organized station is evidnce of a clean and organized mind. The inverse to that seems to be appropriate as well...

4.  SHUT UP.  Please, just do the work.  You aren't good enough to talk and prep yet.  Sorry to tell you that.  You're being paid to do a job so - JUST DO IT (thank you, Nike)!  Music, maybe.  The jury is still out on that. 

5.  Pay attention.  From the time you clock in until the chef allows you to leave there are things happening.  Pay attention to the people around you and where they are moving - make sure there are no accidents.  Pay attention to where things are stored - cold storage, dry storage, etc.  Know where necessary product and foodstuffs are kept.  Pick up trash from the floor.  Put plastic containers back where they belong.  'Do it right or do it twice'. 

6.  Learn to cook on a line.  There is no substitute for the experience of 'the dance'.  On the line, involved in the pace of service, learning to move with purpose, keeping your meez in order...  In all that rush of activity DO NOT FORGET TO TASTE YOUR FOOD!   If the guest is the first person to taste what you have made on a plate then you have failed.  You might actually get it right but you need to know that it's right.  This is not a guessing game.  Many cooks feel that putting out _____ (fill in any number) covers is the focus of their evening.  My question to them is always 'did you taste any of them'?  Flavor is King.

7.  Organize yourself, your life, your uniform, your appearance.  Auguste Escoffier prodded his early 19th century cooks to comport themselves with dignity and dress approriately in public.  The second edition of Le Guide Culinaire speaks exactly to that, in 1906! 

8.  Be PROFESSIONAL.  Look that up in a dictionary.  Figure it out. 

9.  Stop expecting everyone else to do things for you.  Your entitlement has stopped.  YOU are responsible for you.

10.  Get faster.  A little more everyday.  Speed comes with repetition which comes from experience.  I can beg, push, plead, bribe, kick and work with you to get the job done - but you've got to get moving.  Do push-ups before starting your shift.  Drink less.  Stay in shape.  I'm twice as old as the people I work with.  I work twice as fast as most of them.  That's experience.  Remember that 'There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything.  Once you figure that out, everything is easier'.

11.  Learn classic method and technique before you learn about emulsification of hydrocolloids and ionic bonding of Iota Carragenan or Transglutaminate slurries for protein glueing and 20 hour hot-water baths.  One comes before the other.  If you don't believe me ask Thomas Keller.  Or Ferran Adria.  Or Wylie Dufresne.  Go ahead.  Do it.  Get back to me on that...

12.  Learn patience.  Read 'Letters to a Young Chef' by Daniel Boulud.  Oh yeah, ask him about # 11, too.  You want to be a Chef?  A really good Chef?  It'll 15 years, dude.  You will have to put in your time.  Period.  Remember I wrote 'A REALLY GOOD CHEF'.  There are imposters and posers everywhere.  They lurk in dirty kitchens wearing dirty chef whites and serve dirty food in dirty dining rooms... 

13.  Product identification is absolutely necessary.  Taste everything.  Go to a Farmer's Market.  Buy things you know nothing about.  There is this little invention called the internet...  Find out about stuff.  Peel, cut, chop and cook for yourself.  Go back for more.  Talk to the farmers.  Ask to work with them picking produce from the fields.  Get your hands full of the soil and smell some crisp, clean morning air.  Get up at 5 a.m. and be in the fields while the summer sun is rising to greet a new day.  Help set-up at the market and tend to the first coffee-toting customers at 8 o'clock.  Be a part of the food chain.  Know your herbs.

14.  READ.  Read, what?  Read EVERYTHING.  Nothing should go by without your understanding.  Everything is important.  Your life journey is to be part learning and part doing.  In the end you will never know enough (certainly not all) and you forever be doing more and more...  Fernand Point (yes, read his work 'Ma Gastronomique') wrote 'One must taste everything, read everything and experience everything in end to retain just a little'.

15.  Learn about your Culinary Family Tree.  Know chefs.  Know what they do, what they think and what they aspire to. 

16.  Find a mentor, damn it!  Someone that will inspire you and keep you motivated and on track for success. 

17.  Think critically.  No, it's not rocket science.  It IS culinary science.  No room for dummies in the kitchen.

18.  Find an environment that treats you well.  Just remember that you will only improve when you get out of your comfort zone.

19.  It's all in your Attitude.  Look up Charles Swindoll's 'Attitude'.  It's all in your Attitude.  Enough said.

20.  Leave your EGO at the door.  That will get in your way in everything you do unless you keep it in check.  Let your work speak for you - the quality of your meez, the cleanliness of your station, the taste and flavor of your food.  Gloat in the car or subway on the way home, not in the kitchen or dressing room.  BE HUMBLE.

21.  What we do, requires teamwork.  Yes, there is an 'I' in teamwork.  'What I do affects the team.  I must be a part of the team' I will help to make the team better'.

22.  Learn to maintain sharp knives.  Daily.  Hourly.  Minute by minute.  Let your knives do the work for you.  Invest in a good set.  Full tang. I loved my old carbon steel...  I have a prefernce for German knives.  Wustof, in particular.  I like the heft of a well-balanced knife.  I enjoy the sound of steel to stone when the kitchen is empty after an evening service.  The wrapping of my knife kit at the end of a shift and slinging it over my shoulder as I walk into the dark of night. 

23.  You need to get out of the way of yourself.  Best advice ever.  This is cousin and akin to #'s 19 and 20.

24.  Develop character and leadership qualities - lose your sense of entitlement.  I suppose I could ramble on above the generations that have come after me, just as my grandparents and parents accosted my generation (THE Baby Boomers).  Elayne Clift wrote about this in an on-line essay found in The Chronicle of Higher Learning.  You can find her words @

25.  There can be no discrimination or ridicule in the restaurant kitchen or anywhere in the environs, for that matter.  No beat downs, no long winded tirades...  The front of the house needs to get along with the back of the house.  Y'all are working to please the guest not your personal agendas.  Once again, see #20, above.

26.  Learn to communicate.

27.  Learn to take criticsm. 

28.  Know that nothing that is worthwhile comes easy.

29.  'Oui, Chef' to all of the above. 

Some of you will read this and wonder.  Many will never get to this point.  If you got this far - from this point on it's up to you.  Peace.


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