Photo by Lara Kastner
You have requested the night off work, lined up a babysitter, thrown down the money to secure the good seats. You have waited a couple months for this night and the performance about to go on. You are amped up. The curtain pulls back and the stage explodes. The first lyrics penetrate the stadium.
But wait...that's not Bono? Huh...well he sounds good, maybe even better. After all, this guy has something to prove. But you were expecting the man behind the seminal rock band U2. The genius, the icon, the celebrity.
Disappointed? Of course you are.
Is it the same when the chef is not in the kitchen the night you dine?
From my perspective the transition from hired hand to famous face really started happening in the 1990's with Wolfgang and Emeril Lagasse breaking onto the TV scene. Shortly thereafter the mass penetration of the TVFN and its new crop of stars (Bobby Flay, the various Iron chefs, and Mario Batali) into pop culture spawned a fan base that looked at all types of food media.
Food blogs became popular, ranging from the detailed photo-documentation of meals to gossipy items on chefs including where they were spotted eating on a given night and what actresses they were dating. Food memoirs, chef autobiographies, and back-of-the-house biographies became popular, most notably the good cop/bad cop team of Michael Ruhlman (who wrote the "...of a chef" series of books that romanticized the passion, vision, creativity, and honest hard work of being a chef) and Anthony Bourdain, who sensationalized the rock-star-out-of-control chef image and showed the restaurant industry's underbelly. Both sides proved to be very appealing to foodies, helping further establish the chefs' aura as both idealistic artists and reckless bad boys.
When I took my first chef position at Trio, in 2001, I was a boyish 26-year-old who had cooking chops from my time at the French Laundry but obviously no public notoriety. Henry Adiniya, the owner of Trio at the time, tried to get everyone interested in me, from the diners to the media. Good public relations (aka popularity), he knew, translated to people in the seats.
I was glad people had no interest in meeting the man behind the stove. I wasn't shy, but I had better things to do. Like cook. The occasional foodies would ask to meet me after their meal, inevitably entering the kitchen while I had a cutting board full of fish or meat. Hands dirty, I would reluctantly pull myself away to chat with them.
"You're one to watch--you'll be famous someday!" a few of them would say. I would smile and turn back to my board, make a slight shake of the head while contemplating life as a famous fish butcher, and it was back to filleting. I still shake my head at the idea of being "famous." To me that means big, like really big, A-list actors, world leaders, celebrated artists. I just cook.
How and why have some chefs crossed the line from essentially servants, hardworking laborers of a craft, to people considered artists and famous TV personalities, anchoring multi-million dollar brands? And if they are lucky enough to have found an avenue to this elusive place in American society, what is now personally expected of them?
In a previous post I alluded to the fact that some guests were incredibly disappointed when they did not receive the mat plate while dining at Alinea. I ended by mentioning that as we got better at producing more and more on a given night to give everyone the same opportunity, an element of envy came into play when the presentation was not performed by me personally.
Even if that were all I did all night long, it would simply be impossible for me to plate every matted course in an evening. At times four to five tables will be served the course simultaneously throughout the four dining rooms in the restaurant.
So there are times when our chef de cuisine Dave Beran presents the matted course. Sometimes he plays the role of understudy for the entire evening while I tend to the other important aspects required to make the business successful.
If done well, this is the best of both worlds for everyone involved. The highly motivated chef de cuisine gets to feel the power and excitement of leading a kitchen, and in some cases will execute at a higher level than the chef for that very reason. Skill aside, determination can overrule experience and even ownership. This energy can provide perfection, spontaneity, and creativity not otherwise achieved by the chef.
All these activities pull the chef away from the kitchen and therefore the food, but ideally make the restaurant, the brand, and hopefully the overall guest experience better. The diners gain access, the business is financially rewarded, and the employees benefit from freedom and resources not typical in an average restaurant.
The fact is, the very thing that positions chefs in the class of fame--the grinding out of the daily work in the kitchen while striving for perfection, the monotonous and sometimes menial tasks, and the relentless dedication to the expression of creativity and originality in food--ultimately lands them on magazine covers, in newspaper features, and on TV. Which in turn can catapult the chef into a life far different from the typical hundred hours a week in a hot kitchen.
This creates a direct conflict. Does the success of the chef and restaurant lead to the demise in the quality of the product? Is it a double-edged sword? Most people think that for a great chef--the "passionate visionary artist" the media proclaims--to compete at the highest level, the work has to come directly from the chef's hands, or at least close to them. When people pay to eat the food equivalent of Nude Woman with a Necklace , they want the real deal. A Picasso is a Picasso because he painted it. But cooking is not like music, television, or painting, where art can be immortalized: you cook the masterpiece, it's consumed, and the next day you do it all over again.
Does it have to come from the hands of the master? Or is coming from the mind of the master through the hands of his disciples enough?
What most people don't realize is that this conflict handcuffs the chef. Not having the freedom to venture away from the stove and pursue other interests, personal or professional, is a creative ceiling: the obligation of the kitchen is always present. Naturally, as you grow as a chef and ideally gain more popularity, different opportunities are presented to you.
Cooking at a high level is a young man's game: the time commitment, as well as the mental and physical sacrifices, make working at that extreme unsustainable. But more importantly to the chef as a person is personal growth. Naturally curious and creative, we are always looking for different ways to apply ourselves in other creative media.
I have been fortunate to fulfill a few outside interests recently like writing--this blog, cookbooks, a memoir, traveling, and even collaborating on various TV and film-related projects. These avenues of creativity not only make my life richer and more rewarding personally but also inform and inspire my cooking.
So in the end does it matter if the chef is not in the house? Purely from the standpoint of food execution...likely not. Assuming, that is, that he or she has a well-trained and passionate staff being led by a tight chef de cuisine, the occasional absence is not detrimental to the experience.
But are we even talking about the food? Isn't this about the impact of presence? What if I sat in my office all night long, every meal cooked for every diner without my touching one component of one dish, and then walked through the rooms and chatted with guests at the end of their meal? Would they leave the restaurant having had a better experience than if I'd been too busy cooking to make a single appearance?