Tag Archives: Chefs

Are chefs too profane?

I’m not sure that Pete Wells what is trying to say in his most recent piece in the New York Times.

Last week’s episode of “Top Chef” ended in a volley of profanity, as half the contestants cursed the other half.

The first line of an article about the chef David Chang in The New Yorker last month contained a profane quotation from Mr. Chang. So did the last line. So did many of the lines in between.

But even Mr. Chang at his most vivid comes across as an instructor at vacation Bible school compared with Gordon Ramsay. On his shows “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares,” Mr. Ramsay leaps outside the bounds of broadcasting rules so often that the Web site Television Without Pity begins its summaries of each episode with something it calls (give or take a word here or there) Gordon Ramsay’s Bleep-O-Meter.

The issue from my point of view (and as Mr. Wells alludes to), is less about the chefs, and more about the media that allows and highlights the colorful vocabulary. At some point in the past ten years, highlighting the machismo and the aggressiveness of the folks in the back of the restaurant. The question is, why the change?

Perhaps it’s because of the aura of the 5 star chefs over the previous generation, where the kitchens were perceived as the pinnacle of perfection. This aura included, not just the food, but the professionalism of the staff.

Since the time of the arrival of Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, this has aura has been changed. Now it seems as if there’s this expectation of colrful characters making the food.

My guess (and it is a guess, having not been in the back of a restaurant in almost twenty years now), is that the reality is somewhere in between the two extremes. As with every profession, you’ll have bullies and professionals. What the press seems to want to promote is the former, while the latter still work in relative obscurity.

But are chefs too profane? *shrugs*. Does it matter? Are rock stars too profane? Cabbies? Steel Workers? I’m not sure why the question is relevant.

Unrealistic Expectations

Many thoughts went through my head when I read this story, that I was thrown for a moment on how to exactly comment upon it. For those too lazy busy to click on the link, the article is an in depth look at the Californina Culinary Academy and their application process. Here’s a quick snippet so you can get an idea on the jist of the story…

SF Weekly spoke with more than two dozen applicants, students, and graduates of CCA (California Culinary Academy), and found a pattern of serious complaints. Many former students say admissions representatives told them whatever they thought the applicants needed to hear to get them to sign on the dotted line. The students claim admissions reps said it was a prestigious school that they would be lucky to gain admission to, when it actually admits anyone eligible for a student loan. The graduates say they were misled about the terms of their loans; many have since realized that by the time they finish making payments, they’ll have paid more than $100,000 for just 15 months of school. Finally, the students and graduates we spoke to were told that a CCA degree virtually guaranteed them a well-paying job at an elite restaurant. In fact, the majority went on to low-paying kitchen jobs — and many soon left the food industry entirely in search of salaries that would pay off their student debt.

The activities of CCA discussed within the article are, quite simply, reprehensible, and quite possibly fraudulent. Career Education Corporation, who bought the school in 1999, have focused solely on short term gains while disregarding everything from the Academy’s reputation to simple ethics and morality, all in the pursuit of profits. Meanwhile dozens, if not hundreds of students are now deeply in debt with an education that is incapable of repaying said debt.

However, these were not the first thoughts that went through my mind while reading this story. What went through my mind was this – Have people become so enamored by what they read in the Magazines and what they see on Food Television, that they have become blind to the realities of the industry? Do people really think that upon graduation from any culinary school that they…

  1. …are a chef.
  2. …can open a restaurant.
  3. …that said restaurant will become sucessful.
  4. …that Food TV will come knocking on their door?

Am I misreading the upswing in the Culinary School enrollments? Do the majority of folks really know what the industry is like? Or are people looking for a different path to becoming famous? If people are only going to these Academies to become “SuperStar Chefs”, how much is the current food media culture to blame?

It’s difficult for me to begrudge anyone their celebrity, whether they are food writers, chefs, or even simple personalities like Martha Stewart or even Rachel Ray. I can’t think of any overnight success stories in the food world. Everyone who has status has seemingly put in the hours of work to earn where they are today.

But when I see shows like “Hells Kitchen” or “Top Chef”, I can’t help but think that the viewers of these programs start to believe that anyone can do this type of work. And it’s this point of view that is leading to the increase of applicants to various culinary academies.

…and sitting their waiting to take these folks money are institutions like the folks at Career Education Corporation, who hype the possibilities while downplaying the probabilities.

Does the food media unwittingly help set these unrealistic expectations? I think so to some extent. But it doesn’t take much research to quickly learn the reality of the industry. At some point, the responsibility of bad choices has to lay at rest at the individual who made them.

Another Article on the Evil Food Blogs

Jeez, talk about your overblown title -

Restaurants vs. Bloggers: Rage Against the Machine
In the 21st Century, High-Powered Chefs Are Forced to Listen to the Little Guy — as Long as He Has a Keyboard

Ugh. There’s so much wrong here that I’m not sure where to start.

First and foremost – Yelp and Chowhound are not food blogs. Please oh please stop confusing the mediums.

Secondly, not all food blogs deal in restaurant reviews, for every Adam, there’s a Clotilde; for every Pim, there’s a Heidi. The difference between them is that Adam and Pim write about restaurants, and Heidi and Clotilde do not.

I find this above comparison striking, because while the publishing world lauds Clotilde and Heidi for their writing and their food knowledge, chefs and restaurateurs dismiss Pim, Adam and others for the lack of food knowledge. Where’s the logic? A food blog is only as good, only as knowledgeable, and only as trustworthy as the people running it. Passionate people tend to know a lot about the items they are passionate about.

Finally, are food blogs really that much of a threat? The biggest criticism I hear about food blogs is the lack of knowledge and understanding the blog writers have in discerning a restaurant’s intent.

Let’s ignore the premise for the moment that anyone who dines needs to know who Escoffier and This are in order to “get” food. Instead let’s focus on communicating the food’s “intent” (whatever that means).

If I’m served a dish that has what I believe to be too much butter in the sauce, but the recipe for the sauce was a traditional one used in Cuisine classique,  am I at fault for not getting the subtle tastes of lemon or whatnot in the sauce, and how it complimented the dish it was presented with? Or is the chef at fault for not effectively communicating the the sauce used goes well with fish or that the dish was an attempt to play with ideas of balancing the delicate with the bold? Whether I have an educated palate or not, I’m still going to think that the sauce has too much butter.

Because taste is subjective, there is no right or wrong answer to the above questions. And because restaurants are first and foremost a place of business, it’s up to a chef and restaurateur to create a place the keeps customers coming into the front door. Customers which include food bloggers who can afford meals with price tags of forty dollars per plate or more.

What I think it comes down to is this: Restaurant reviews from Food Blogs offer a reflection upon a momentary experience. And if that moment carries an unfortunate event, that event is either an indication of something systemic going on within the restaurant, or an anomaly. If it’s an anomaly, there’s little a chef or owner can do about it except apologize. If it’s something systemic, then the chef or owner should already know about it and be working on fixing it, or realize it is a problem…and then work on fixing it.

Because let me tell you restaurant owners out there something that should be readily apparent – 100% of your clientele are food critics. It’s just that only .001% (give or take) get paid for it.

(Note to self: Must remember that “Uneducated Palate” would make a great punk bank name.)

The Disconnect of Five Star Dining

Alone on the stage stands a violinist. It is dark, save one lone spotlight casting down upon the musician, which serves to cast them as the singular point of focus for the audience, as well as to create a subtle air of menace.

The violin in brought to the chin, the bow is raised, and Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major begins.

At this point, members of the audience will surreptitiously and unknowingly divide into several groups. Some will listen to the sum of the performance, ignoring the musician’s technique or skill and base their perceptions of the evening on whether they were in a good mood, , how pleasant or unpleasant the auditorium was, how the audience responded, or whether they knew the musician from previous performances. The music, if enjoyed, will be appreciated from a very personal perspective

Some will pay careful attention to the music, ensuring the musician does the piece justice. Questions such as “Does the performer have the requisite skills to perform the piece?”, “Are the performer’s fingers heard as they press upon the fingerboard?”, “Does their technique result in unintended noises?”, and “Do they understand the piece they are playing?” are all asked and answered as the piece progresses.

And still others will remain ignorant of the music or musician, unable or unwilling to understand the history of the music, nor will they be able to appreciate the skill and talent needed to perform the Concerto. The music will be heard the same way that some people hear foreign languages – unintelligible. Their response to the music will most likely be frustration or indifference, due in large part to their inability to understand what they are listening to.

Then there are those who were unable to get tickets to the concert.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some variation of the above is what goes through my mind every time I pick up an issue of Bon Appetit, read an article about Thomas Keller, or listen to someone talk about molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or any of the other genres of 5 star restaurants out there.

Over at Ruhlman.com, commenter Maura left the following note in response to Michael’s most recent post about Molecular Gastronomy:

The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observent cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena.
I’m not so sure about this. I hope it’s not true. And it leaves behind millions of people who are neither insiders nor attuned to trends in cooking. It leaves behind people who barely have enough food, or don’t have the resources to engage in these techniques. It leaves behind people who aren’t looking for an exisential experience. To suggest that this will be the only acceptable way to cook and eat is elitist.

For now, let’s leave aside the notion that “molecular gastronomy” can be defined in several ways (I see it as both a process/philosophy and separately as a ‘cuisine’). Instead, let’s focus on the larger question of whether 5 star restaurant culture affects the more general food culture.

Quick quiz – when in the kitchen, do you use any techniques made popular by Haute Cuisine? Do you intentionally seek to combine foods and techniques from two or more cultures in order to create a single meal? Is presentation equally important as taste?

My guess is that a handful of you answered yes to some of the above, less than a handful answered yes to all of the above, and a fair majority answered no to all of the above, with the caveat being that some of you didn’t know what the heck haute cuisine was, nor that presentation is actually a big deal.

Of course my quiz was full of generalizations that disregarded the many subtleties that may have affected the way some of you cook. But my general belief is that 5 star dining affects regular everyday cooks very little, if even at all.

The reason is basic economics. Can an average person afford to acquire the tools, product and skills necessary to produce meals equivalent to those found in 5 star restaurants? Unless they have a high income, a fair amount of free time, and the resources required to take care of other responsibilities (such as cleaning the house, raising the kids), then the short answer is “no”.

If these tools, products, and skills are unable to make it into the core repertoire of home cooks, then it’s unlikely to have a major effect upon the larger food culture.

So then why the big deal surrounding Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, et al? Jumping back to the violinist, those who have spent a great deal of time understanding cooking techniques and studying tastes and cuisines have found these guys to be exceptionally talented and innovative when compared to others in the restaurant industry. Their influence can and will be felt throughout the restaurant industry, especially in regard to upscale dining.

However, their effect upon the food culture as a whole will be minimal. Those of us are unable (or unwilling) to hear the violinist and the music they are playing are unlikely to be moved by it. Anyone who claims otherwise speaks primarily from hubris.

What is Culinary School worth?

I came across this story the other day:

SAN FRANCISCO — Cameron Cuisinier’s dreams of a catering career led him to culinary school. Now he’s unemployed and $43,000 in debt, and he’s not alone.

From TV chefs to reality shows where the winners get their own restaurants, it’s a hot time to be in the kitchen. Record numbers of would-be chefs are enrolling in culinary schools, some of which charge $20,000 a year or more.

At first glance, the obvious question that popped into my mind was “Are culinary schools worth it?”

But upon reflection, the value of the education that these schools provide is only one part of the education. The worth of anything is determined by the consumer of the product or service. The seller in turn only puts out a price that they know they can get. When taking this thought into account, my question then turned into “Do the students and graduates of these schools know what they are getting into?”

When investing in education, I was told to take into account how much I could expect in return, once I left school. Of course I majored in communications and ended up working in the software/aerospace industry, so what the hell do I know.

Still, I’m wondering what some of these students are thinking. If are aspiring to be head cooks or chefs, the numbers still aren’t in their favor. From the article:

The number of food service jobs in America rose from 9.9 million in 2001 to 10.8 million in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But a small fraction of those jobs – roughly 115,000 – are for chefs or head cooks, and that number did not change significantly during the five-year span.

That’s a one to one hundred ratio, for those of you working that out in your head.

This aspect doesn’t even take into account the moderate to low wages, the long hours, and in some instances the lack of benefits. It’s a tough gig, no matter how you slice it.

I’m not going to sit here and say “Culinary schools aren’t worth the money”, because clearly there are some who have benefited from these types of institutions. But I do ask “Are these places selling a lifestyle that is difficult to attain?” The folks I have met who attended various acting and music schools and programs were all told to expect little in the way of financial benefits from their chosen crafts. Do these culinary schools effectively communicate this reality to their respective students?

As a side note, I have found that several of the chefs I have talked with over the past few years have gotten where they are through mentoring and apprenticeship, a practice that Shuna over at Eggbeater highly advocates. Is this a better way to break into the industry, or simply a cheaper alternative?
Technorati Tags: Culinary Schools, Chefs, Cooks

So my question to you restaurant folk is this – Would you recommend culinary school to someone? If so, why?

Rock and Roll and Restaurants

There’s a deleted scene in Almost Famous, where the lead guitarist for the band Stillwater talks about why he loves music. I’m paraphrasing here, but the jist of the monologue was that it was the tiniest of imperfections of an otherwise perfect song that made rock and roll such a joy to behold.

I have the same feeling towards restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a great deal of respect to the chefs, owners and staffs of the various three and four star restaurants I’ve been to in my life. I’ve enjoyed food that I couldn’t recreate in my lifetime, and I’ve been the recipient of customer service so precise that I would have sworn that there was a Marine drill sergeant masquarading as a floor manager. In my mind, I equate these places to classical music – highly talented artisans and craftsmans working in concert to provide the consumer the most technically proficient product that can be had.

But my heart? My heart belongs to the rock and rollers of the food world. These are the people who know only three or four chords, and only know how to keep tempo in 4/4 time, yet can bring thousands of people to their feet, light their lighters, bang their heads and get their asses out on the dance floor or into a mosh pit.

These are the folks who make Philly Cheesesteaks, bowls of Tex-Mex Chili, and Barbeque in it’s many iterations. These are people who wouldn’t know mirepoix from soffritto, and don’t give a damn about this gap in their knowledge. It’s the folks who run the pho houses, teriyaki joints, and Indian buffets that get their followings by word of mouth. It’s the restaurants that I go to on a regular basis as opposed to the restaurants I go to on special occaissions.

Or to put it another way, I recognize the artistry and influence of the Haydens, Bachs and Copelands of the world, and even click on them in my iPod from time to time. But when push comes to shove, I’m more likely to listen to The Clash, Husker Du, or The Who.

So when I see things such as chefs trying to make a foie gras hot dog, or sell haute hamburgers, I chuckle a bit inside. To me, this sounds as odd as Yo-Yo Ma covering The Killers. Yeah it may sound interesting, and certainly they’ll be a proficiency to it which cannot be denied, but it’s still not rock and roll.

Technorati Tags: Food,

Ethics and Fine Dining – Chef Christine Keff talks Organic

Flying Fish hhas been in Seattle for almost eleven years now, and seems to be more of an institution than a restaurant. Last year, chef and owner Christine Keff caused a bit of a local sensation in the restaurant scene when she announced that the place was going to an all organic menu.

Seriously – Questions were asked. Meetings were held. Voices were raised.

It was interesting to watch the big names in the Seattle restaurant scene react. It was even more interesting to listen to what these chefs had to say about various food philosophies in the context of running well respected fine dining restaurants.

And then? Then there was silence as the chefs went back to simply running their restaurants. But being the ever curious person that I am, I always wondered in the back of my mind “What would happen to a restaurant after it decided to go organic?”. I sat down with Chef Keff to ask a little about her restaurant and what she has learned.

As way of a general introduction to the folks who don’t know your or your restaurant, Can you give a little background on your career and your restaurant? Sure. I’ve been cooking for 30 years. I never went to cooking school, instead taking a formal apprenticeship at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. I worked in New York for ten years and then moved to Seattle.

I then worked a bunch of places around town, some corporate restaurants, and then eleven years ago I opened Flying Fish. We were in the right place at the right time and have been pretty successful. We have a regular clientèle and loyalty, not just from Seattle-ites, but from people from other cities who frequent Seattle frequently. It’s been a fun ride.

Has anyone been a role model in either the way you cook or the way you approach running your restaurant? The best role model I ever had was the first chef I worked for at the Four Seasons. He had a very naturalistic approach to food, even at a time when a more formal approach was stylish. He always wanted to do, and did do, food that made sense, that had a basis in tradition even if it wasn’t traditional itself.

Do you find that this approach fits well in the Seattle area? It does. It fits particularly well in the genre that we’re in, using ingredients from other cultures to compliment the fish from our waters. We use a lot of Asian ingredients, but we don’t always do “traditional” Asian dishes. It’s not always like what you would have over there, as we use those ingredients but with different techniques.

I’ve traveled rather extensively in that area of the world and I feel that our food may play around a little bit, but we’re still grounded in tradition.

Why did you decide to go organic? I decided to go organic because I feel that what we are doing to the planet is arrogant and wrong.

I understand that “organic” has a long and honorable history as a word and as a concept and has a whole philosophy behind it, but really what drew me to it was the number of things that get killed by the way we farm. If you kill the bugs, then the birds don’t have anything to eat – it just seems terrible hubris to treat the ground and everything that lives off the ground the way that we do. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just got to me, I couldn’t really tell you why.

Do you remember when you started thinking that you had to do something? I do. It was a couple of years ago. It wasn’t entirely “spiritual” but it did starting thinking more about spiritual issues. I’m later in my life and I’ve been thinking a lot about something called creation spirituality that says things like “God is in everything”. If I really believe that, how can I condone doing the things that we do? By buying that stuff, I’m supporting it.

Fortunately Flying Fish is a profitable restaurant and I have a little bit of room to play where I can make decisions like that whereas people who are working a little closer to the bone sometimes can’t.

So I asked “what would happen if I didn’t support that anymore?”

How long did it take from saying “I’m doing this” to telling the crew “This is what we’re going to do”?It took me a couple of months to get to the point where I knew we were going to do it. Then I broached it with the crew and I said “Let’s do this within six months”.

Was there any resistance to this idea? Yup, there was.

From inside or outside the restaurant? In house, not from outside.

It’s harder. Organics, especially in produce, are geared to the grocery stores. Most organic growing and buying is geared for what sells in the grocery stores.

It’s different for restaurants when you need something all year round. Like shallots for example, they don’t appear in the organic section in the grocery store, so it’s very hard to find a consistent supply of them.
But we found them and have them. It was difficult up front, but in the end it means that any restaurant who wants organic shallots over the course of the year can buy them because we’re buying them. Our supplier has learned where to get them and has started stocking them. That’s how it happens.

What were some of the problems that you anticipated in going to an all organic menu? We anticipated price increases and we did see a little bit of that. We anticipated higher food costs, and initially we encountered one, but we managed to get that back down to where it was.

We had a small increase in price, maybe a dollar per plate. But we were still below many of the other fine dining restaurants. It didn’t price us beyond the reach of the customer at all.

Percentage-wise, can you say how much going organic had affected your food costs? It took a two point jump when we first started it. Two percent – which is significant. It was already low by industry standards, so it didn’t hurt us that much. Then we worked on getting it back down, and now it’s back down. Within four months our new chef, Angie Roberts, got it down.

To get the costs back down, we found it was simply a matter of manipulating the menu. Instead of saying “This case of broccoli costs half as much this other case”, we instead looked at paring higher cost items with lower ones. We can put higher cost broccoli with lower cost fish, and the costs even out over the course of the entire menu.

You’ve been organic for almost a year now. Where their any problems over the course of this time that caught you entirely off guard? What I didn’t anticipate was the staff resistance. I actually lost a chef over this. I was really surprised by that.

He was one of the people who thought that going organic means going “granola”, for lack of a better word. I had not anticipated that at all, because, for me, I wasn’t thinking about organic meaning “hippies” and “communes” and all that kind of stuff. For me it was something very specific. I was really floored by that. Eventually he just didn’t want to do it, and he left.

When I sat down with Tom Douglas, he said that he makes his food choices based on locality, sustainability and the organic. How much thought did you put into both locality and sustainability? I’ve heard other chefs say “It’s all about local. Organic doesn’t matter.” I think that’s kind of the other end of the spectrum and you don’t want to be there either. They both matter.

I’ve decided to draw the line in the sand with organic and not use fresh ingredients that aren’t organic, and I don’t specify if they’re local or not. It’s a first step and it takes the chemicals out of the equation.
We try to buy local as much as we can. But local here means a very short produce season. What do we do the rest of the year? Do we just go back
to buying industrial non-organic stuff? I won’t let people diminish the importance of organic just because they’re focused on local.

Organic is a sustainable practice. There’s no separation between sustainable and organic.

I think a lot of chefs have some sort of “heebee jeebee” about organic – “It’s always expensive”, “I can’t afford it”, “It’s granola and Birkenstock’s”, “It means we can’t have the great ingredients that we want”, when it doesn’t mean any of that at all. You can get fresh organic turmeric from Hawaii for example, and most people don’t even look for organic turmeric.

I think a lot of chefs put organic way at the other end of the spectrum because they don’t know what’s possible. They think that if they have an “organic” restaurant, it will mean having a “granola” restaurant.

What have been the more difficult items to get organic? Lemon grass was hard. Bean sprouts were hard, oddly enough. Evidentially it was the mung beans themselves that are sprayed with something to keep them from rotting.

There have been times when items simply weren’t available. This was the case with turmeric where all the fresh turmeric was gone, and all that was left was stuff that was rotting. So we’ve learned to keep certain items frozen.

What’s been the best part of the last year? Well, our lives are not a lot different than they were before. We just know that we’re doing this and it feels good. It feels good to make some products readily available to those who want to make those choices.

How have been the customers’ reactions? All good. They’ve appreciated it. We’ve given them added value and we haven’t put them through the ringer. What’s not to like?

Technorati Tags: Christine Keff, Restaurants, Organic Food, Fine Dining