Friday, December 12, 2008

The Chef Debate

Chefs, Celebrity Chefs, Top Chef and Public perception.

My father was a Chef. As a young child it was a minor source of social discomfort and embarrassment for me. Growing up in the early 1960's my friend's fathers all had professions that us kids were familiar with. Either through day to day interaction or portrayed in countless television shows and movies. The only time you would see a male chef on television was occasionally on the 3 Stooges, not a good example. The experience my peers had with people who cooked for a living was limited to contact with school cafeteria ladies or the women at the Woolworth's lunch counter. If children did get to go with their parents out to a fancy restaurant, the kitchen was a place of mystery behind closed doors. Women cooked, men barbecued. I knew different, I had been in my father's kitchen and visited his chef friends at work. There were certain days during the school year when a friend's father might come into our class and describe to us his profession. I was always relieved that my father was too busy to participate. Today, with the abundance of high profile male chefs, celebrated in every form of mass media, a child would feel different.

"If you got into this business to be the next Emeril, you should apologize to your parents for wasting their money." Tom Colicchio

Bret Thorn, the Editor at Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication, recently penned an article on his blog titled: "When is a Celebrity Chef too Much of a Celebrity?" The article was, in essence, more of a diatribe against the television show Top Chef than a dialogue regarding the role of celebrity Chefs today. Back in my father's time Chefs weren't really respected other than being in the kitchen. You rarely saw them in the dining room interacting with people. Now all of a sudden, people have started looking at chefs and saying, "Wow! That person really is a craftsman, is really a business person, they can do publicity, they can act". Some people do begrudge celebrity chefs their fame though. One major complaint is that some have too many restaurants and other ventures going on, so how can they be cooking for you? Even a Chef who is running a single restaurant, and is present every night, in most instances, will not be touching your food. If you bought a Karl Lagerfeld dress do you think that the great designer himself was hunched over the sewing machine making sure your seams were straight? In the majority of better restaurants the Executive Chef spends the brunt of his time administrating and hires well qualified people to execute, under his guidance and direction, the cuisine that he creates. Even then, it's still a life of long hours of hard work. So it should not be difficult to see why someone, who has spent many years working that hard, would want to trade kitchen time for P.R. work and travel, promoting themselves and their craft.

As for Top Chef, Mr. Thorn's beef was more with the fans of the show and the worry that it promotes egomania, fosters unrealistic expectations in culinary students and aspiring chefs and is detremental to the industry in general. He does admit that he doesn't watch the show though and his opinion is based on buzz and hype. In a New York Times article Frank Bruni commented that perhaps Mr. Thorn was being a little too grumpy. I have to agree. Rising to fame and fortune via reality TV is as likely as stumbling across a sack of money by the side of the road. I believe that most graduating culinary students are aware of that and have chosen culinary arts because they genuinely like food and cooking, even though some of them don't have the natural talent or aptitude to ever cook professionally. Yes, Top Chef does have some participants that are not likable, but that is no different than any other pursuit we might find ourselves in. What I like about the show is that it makes me think, as a chef, about the food and the cooking that is going on. What would I make in that challenge? What menu would I create with those given ingredients? What would I do to win any particular challenge? How could they screw that up? I wouldn't care to be on the show, but it does make me think as a contestant when I watch it. Mr Thorn, who I do respect as a writer, and someone who has a passion and love for the culinary arts, should give the show a chance and perhaps look at it as though he were a chef.

Nigerian Scam email for Chefs

I received this today. I have had a couple of Nigerian scam emails (I say Nigerian but this could be from anywhere, it's just that the Nigerians were the ones that made this style of scamming famous) in the past but never one that is Chef oriented. It does have the obligatory typos and charming coloquial English usage. What fun!

Hello There,
How are you doing today?.Thank you for your interest concerning our job position.We're opening a new resturant & kitchen in your location very soon & we cannot disclose the name for now due to some privacy issue.The resturant & kitchen will be open by january 2009,and i hope you can ACT very well and be one of our grate chef.You will be working 3 to 4 hrs a day 3 times a week,you will have to choose any days of the week and time that will be comfortable for you and without disturbing your full time job if you have any.We have our own cooking details and prescription for each kind of dishes that is to be prepare.Concerning your pay,you will be getting $500 per week.Your first week salary will be given to you as upfront to secure your service legitimately and to get yourself prepare and ready for the job.

You're going to receive a certified check for the payment,kindly go ahead and deposit it with your bank for verification so that the check can clear your account.Deduct your own fee for 2 weeks which is $1000 and you're going to send the rest to the interior decorator that will be furnishing the resturant.The reason why you're getting paid now is because we don't want any delay when the resturant is ready and understand that this is a help by sending the rest of the funds to the interior agent. So if you are interested in this position,kindly get back to me with the following details in order to facilitate the payment.


Thank you for your co-operation and i will be looking forward hearing back from you as soon as possible
Best Regards.
James Williams.

Does this sound too good to be true? I'll bet it is!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

From the Wonders of the Exotic to the Locavore Revolution

From the Wonders of the Exotic to
the Locavore Revolution

In 2007 the Oxford English Dictionary declared Locavore as word of the year. It came as no surprise to anyone who chooses cooking and dining as one of life’s grand pursuits. Books such as the Omnivores Dilemma, by Michael Pollen, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the 100 Mile Diet from Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon inspired many a foodie to babble the terms “carbon footprint” and “sustainability” any time the conversation turned culinary. The history of food trade and transport is as interesting as it is long. Throughout history foreign trade has helped, by way of shaping our diet, to define us both culturally and ethnically. A new moral thinking regarding the environment and animal welfare, combined with fears of a future Blade Runner-esque dystopia, and a societal shift towards a greener lifestyle, has people shying away from foodstuffs from afar. Call it hippy light. Call it what you want. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

Back in the day, if you were a chef, to be cutting edge meant getting the goods from as absolutely far away as possible. I recently listened to some archival recordings from the Canadian Broadcasting Company and found this piece about a luncheon given in Montreal in 1947 by the aviation wing of the Canadian Board of Trade to promote the air transportation of food. It’s ironic to hear the gleeful pride in the broadcasters voice as she reports the air miles traveled and number of airlines employed for the transport of each and every item. The grand total for this one meal, 92,271 miles. As a chef in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember how thrilling it was to get exotic foodstuffs from around the globe. Carbon footprints? Global warming? We had yet to grapple with these issues. It wasn’t as though you were chucking an empty soda can out of the car window. I did buy pigs and cured hams from a local farmer, Catfish and turtle from a man who ran a boat on the Wabash River and local produce when I could get it. However, as a chef, I really wanted to work with the foods that I had, up till then, only read about. Along came Walter Martin and Andrew Udelson, 2 young entrepreneurs, with a revolutionary startup called Flying Foods International. They flew virtually everywhere for items that a lot of us chefs never had the opportunity to work with before. Real langoustines from the Mediterranean, roe scallops from the Isle of Man, haricot vert from Tahiti, passion fruit from New Zealand, Belon oysters from Brittany, fresh truffles from the Perigord, the list goes on. You have to remember at that time, produce such as haricot vert and passion fruit were not grown domestically. Can you imagine, in 1983 dollars, paying five dollars for one passion fruit or five dollars per pound for imported green beans? Today chefs generate the same emotion by having products produced in their own back yard as they did thirty years ago with something from halfway around the world.

The experiments that some are conducting by only eating items produced in close proximity are interesting if anything. But how far can one go? Forge one’s own cutlery? Tan your own leather from road kill? We should consume more locally when possible but realize that, Époisses only comes from Burgundy, real balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia and Jamon Iberico from Spain. Terroir and tradition cannot be duplicated nor should it. We can't pick peppercorns or harvest cinnamon bark in Massachusetts but if you can find a good pair of shoes or shirt made locally go for it. And if you can get hand made pasta from a little village in Tuscany, go for that too.