Don’t Thank The Chef


Daily Disney - Octopus Sushi Chef

I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls the other day which opens with Sookie, the chef at the inn where some of our main characters work, is standing over a table full of plates of food. She is freaking out because the guests sent back all of these plates because they tasted bad. One was too salty, one had no flavor, and one was “sewery.”

Sookie says that she tasted them all, and had her staff–ten people standing behind her–taste them. They’re all fine, so what is the problem with these jerk customers? She asks Lorelai, another character, to taste the food and tell her if she is crazy. Lorelai takes a bite of rice and says that she  now understands the word “sewery.” The food is terrible, and the staff were too scared to tell the chef about it. It turns out that there is someone wrong with Sookie’s pallet, and that’s why the food she served is all bad.

It made me want to put my foot through my TV screen. And I was watching this on a computer. But it was so infuriating that I blamed the entire medium of television, and in my rage I lacked the rationality not to blame the electronic device most commonly responsible for delivering it. Plus, I’m not going to mess up my computer. That’s nuts!

But anyway. This moment, and many similar ones on this mostly-good show, convey a common misconception that drives people in the food industry nuts. Not just because it’s inaccurate, but because it is poisonous and has genuine consequences. The misconception is this:

The chef cooks your food.

It’s not bloody true. Not only is it not true, it’s ridiculous. In this very scene of Gilmore Girls, we are shown the large staff of cooks in this kitchen. There are at least five or six of them, always running around making food while Sookie spends most of her time piping frosting onto elaborate cakes or hanging out with Lorelai. At least this show has a kitchen with a full staff. Most shows seem to think two or three people is enough to run a busy high end kitchen. This show has a full staff, although apparently all they do is peel potatoes.

There is no way for the chef to make all of the stocks, sauces, starches, sauteed items, grilled items, and other components that would have contributed to all of the food that went out being bad. Nor could she possibly taste and alter the seasoning of every single dish that they served. Especially when she also appears to do the baking. Sookie is shown as a very hands-on chef. Even a micromanager. But even if she paid special attention to each food item that went out, she wouldn’t have cooked it all, and she certainly wouldn’t have tasted each one. Are we supposed to believe that every time they serve a steak she cuts a hunk off and throws it down the old gullet to see if it has enough salt?

A chef is a manager more than anything. Even someone like Sookie who is always in the kitchen involved in the cooking, which is not the standard way of doing things, but it does happen. She is portrayed as the “genius chef” archetype whose food is a direct result of their ability to invent and execute amazing dishes. Those types of chefs do exist, but a lot of the reason their kitchens put out such great food is that they are good at training and managing a staff of excellent, professional cooks.

These cooks are the people who actually make the food. Not only that, they’re usually better at the actual execution than the chef who gets all the credit. The person who works the grill has thousands and thousands of hours of recent experience cooking steaks, of seasoning and sauces and preparing them in this exact way. That cook has more practice at the specific dishes on the menu than most people ever get at anything, because it’s a repetitive tasks. In a high end restaurant, the high standards and constant striving for perfection means that a good cook isn’t just practicing, they’re deliberately practicing. Which means they are always getting better.

The chef almost certainly can cook a mean steak. Once upon a time they may have been as good or better than the guy on the grill. But now the chef is almost certainly a little rusty. They aren’t in the trenches all the time like the cooks. Their priorities are different, as they should be. And they rose to that position not by being the best cook. At least, not necessarily. There’s a good chance the best cook in that kitchen is on that grill, and has been there for over a decade. The chef got the throne and the big paycheck because they can manage people, because they can make hard decisions, design menus, haggle with produce suppliers. And, a lot of the time, because they speak better English than the guy on the grill.

So yes, the chef is important. But they didn’t make your food. They ran a team of talented badasses who made your food. And they made a whole hell of a lot more money doing it, partially because the people who cut the paychecks have the same misconceptions as a lot of other people. The guy on screen with the great hair and the winning smile gets a lot more credit than the people behind the camera, even though their parts are equally important.

So don’t thank the chef. Everyone thanks the chef. The chef doesn’t need any more thanks. Find out who cooked that wild salmon so perfectly, and who made the almost impossibly delicate sauce, and thank them.

There’s a pretty good chance it’ll be the first time anyone ever did.



Heat Flow

Cirque de Flambe

Everyone loves to bitch about their jobs. But if you have a friend who works in the restaurant industry, you know that they can almost always one up you in the bitching department.

Steve, in marketing: Man, my day sucked. I have a huge project due on Friday and half of my team is out with the flu.

Emma, a cook: That’s nice. I can’t feel my left pinky because the oil burn from last week got cut open today while I was slicing lemons, and my girlfriend made me sleep on the couch last night because I couldn’t wash the smell of fish water from my hair even after a 40 minute shower.

Cooks are always on their feet, always cutting and burning themselves, and are always achy and exhausted from too much fast paced work and manual labor. Plus, kitchens are fatalistic environments, even compared to other modern American workplaces. Cooks brag about their injuries and horrid working conditions in a never ending zero-sum game of “whose job is shittier?”

When I look back at my decade in the restaurant industry, all I can really remember are the bad parts. All I remember telling my  friends about my work days were the chef screaming and throwing hamburger buns at me; the time I ruined a stack of baguettes by bleeding all over them before I noticed I had cut myself; the nights of working until 1 AM scrubbing out fish containers and then coming back at five hours later to start the veal stock. I told them of these things partially to gain sympathy. But that wasn’t the main reason.

I burnt out eventually, like so many cooks do. But while I was there I loved it. With passion. And this is true for so many cooks. They hate it, but they also love it? But why? Why do they love it when it is full of so much awfulness? I wondered about this for years. Cooks won’t tell you, because talking about enjoying their job isn’t part of cooking culture. But you can see it. In the middle of the dinner rush when flames are leaping off the grill and pans are being tossed around in a symphony of clangs and crashes. You can see it in the eyes of the five cooks who dance around and yell at each other and the servers, interweaving in desperate, adrenaline flavored elegance.

The answer is flow. That mind state where you are full and completely absorbed in a task, to the point that your movements are both entirely deliberate and utterly effortless. Where every thought and breath are infused with purpose and synchronized with function. Where every part of you works as a single unit, immersed in the moment, and distant from it. You are both the performer on stage and the audience drinking the performance in. It is the closest most of us ever get to transcendence. To, dare I say it, enlightenment.

When it’s good–when it works–professional cooking is non stop flow. At a busy restaurant, on a good night, with a good team, you can spend hours in flow. It’s why cooks can be drenched in sweat and barely notice or care. It’s why cooks and servers can scream at each other and go out for drinks afterwards like old friends. It’s how that saute cook can work on 12 dishes at the same time and not burn a single crab cake or put one chive out of place.

There’s a lot to hate about professional cooking, and really only one thing to love.

But damn. With love like that–with that kind of passion–who cares how terrible it is? Sensation in your fingers is overrated anyway.

Visceral Eigenstate to the Gut


37, day seventeen.

I barely breathed as I carried the five gallon bucket of dirty fryer grease across the recently mopped kitchen floor. It took me half an hour to clean the fryer. My apron and my sleeves where black with the grimy remains of burnt french fries and chicken fingers. The scent of rancid oil was everywhere, and I could feel it on my arms, on my face, in my pores. It had been a fifty hour week with no backup except a whiny prep-cook. He was already gone. I just had to finish cleaning the fryer and I could go home. All I had left was to empty the dirty oil into the grease trap behind the dish pit. A five gallon bucket of oil weighs upwards of forty pounds. The metal handle was slippery. It cut into my palm. The oil was still hot, and the burns on my fingers from cleaning the fryer too fast inflamed. Just a fifteen more feet. Now just ten more. The worst possible thing I could do right now would be to drop this bucket. Oh god, why did I think that?

The handle slipped from my grip. The bucket thudded to the floor, and the oil flooded out. Some of it splashed my leg, coating my pants with thick, hot grease. In a few seconds, the oil was everywhere. I once dropped a ten gallon bucket of teriyaki sauce. It took hours to sop it all up, and days before the floor was no longer sticky. This would be much, much worse. I had done it. I was going to be here all night. I had dropped the bucket of dirty fryer oil.

Except I hadn’t.

It didn’t happen. The bucket was still in my hand. I hadn’t spilled it anywhere, except in my head. I emptied it into the grease trap, went home, and took a shower. Or two.

I have a very visceral imagination. I chose these words carefully. I do not mean a good imagination, or a powerful imagination, or even a vivid imagination. I mean visceral. When encountered with something that frightens me, or that I find disgusting, I feel it. It is rich, and sensory, and horrible. It does not happen every time, but it is frequent.

A car cuts me off. I feel it crash into me. The g-forces of deceleration distend my face. My head crashes into the driver’s side window. I hear more than see window shatter as I fly through it, and the impact as my face collides with the concrete medium in the middle of the road. I can feel it now, as I type this. It is uncomfortable.

I am sure there is a psychological condition that describes this. I have never been able to find it. This sort of thing is difficult to research, because it is difficult to describe the symptoms without examples or illustrative metaphor. I am sure there are other people who have this condition, but I have never met any of them.

It has some side effects. It makes it pretty unpleasant to be a cook. Cooks cut things with sharp knives. Cooks put sensitive body parts next to hot surfaces. They have to do it over and over and over, so quickly they don’t have time to be careful. Cooks have to carry heavy, awkward containers that are easily spilled. The contents are often expensive, or took hours to prepare. This is exacerbated by the culture in many kitchens. In one restaurant, I had to stock the downstairs kitchen every Friday; it was not used during the week. This involved carrying hundreds of pounds of food out the back door, through an alley, and down several flights of steps. I usually did it in four or five laborious trips. My senior coworkers made fun of me. They could do it in three. If it took me five trips I must not be much of a man.  The whole time I carried the food, I could feel myself spilling it.

Another side effect is that I am squeamish about certain subjects. I hate scatological conversation or humor. I have to mitigate discussion of the subject with a word like “scatological” to even be able to talk about it.  If someone describes a bodily function in a little too much detail, I am right there with them as they perform it. I am up to my elbows in it. My friends all know this about me. They think it is hilarious to make these kinds of jokes in my presence, sometimes with great detail and impressively evocative language. Through hours and hours of practice with a responsible subject, I’d say they’ve gotten quite good at it.

My friends are all jerks.

I do not know if this has any positive effects. Maybe it makes me a better writer. I do have an active imagination in the more usual sense. They are probably related. I am sometimes moved by music or beauty in a way that staggers me. I was once so flooded with joy at the sight of Mt. Reineer on a clear day that I had to pull my car over until the feeling subsided. Before you worry about me, this is very rare. Also, it is wonderful. It might be the same phenomenon.

I may not know the name of the psychological condition that accounts for this, but I do have the next best thing: a ridiculous theory. The way I see it, every time I encounter something risky or unpleasant, my senses are pounded by a sudden and intense awareness of my place in a multi-universe probability cloud. Like an electron in an un-collapsed waveform. I am always in a probability cloud, under this theory. All of us are. I happen to have a mental quirk that makes me aware.

Whenever I carry something that can be spilled, another me, in another universe, does spill it. It clatters to the floor and flies everywhere. He panics and shakes as his brain releases adrenaline and cortisol. Frustration and images of the immanent consequences of his blunder surge into his mind as he scrapes food matter off of his pants. Meanwhile, back in this universe, I feel what he is feeling. It is not as strong, or as real, but I feel it.

Bear in mind this is not always the same alternate me. Or at least, for his sake I sure hope that it isn’t. That would be a serious luckless bastard. Completely unemployable. Rather there is always some other Jesse in the probability cloud who spills or crashes or burns whatever it is, and I get to feel what he is feeling. Does this make me more careful, because the consequences of mistakes feel so real? I don’t know. I’ve only actually spilled things a few times, so it might.

I call it the Visceral Multi-Universe Effect, because names for things are cool. I know I can’t be the only one experiencing the Visceral Multi-Universe Effect. I would love to talk to others who do. Maybe if we combine our powers we can do something neat, like cross over into another universe. Actually, no, that’s ridiculous. I don’t know why I considered that a serious possibility.

Much more likely, we’ll be able to control our own probability clouds. At first it will be small. Flipped coins will turn up heads more often. It will stop raining just as we step outside. We will never spill anything.

Eventually, though a series of struggles and encounters during which there is bonding and estrangement and re-bonding and loads of personal growth, we will gain serious fine control. We will go to Vegas, and clean up at the roulette wheel. You will become the world’s best marksman; you never miss. I will indulge in synchronicity after synchronicity to become the world’s most interesting person. It will be great fun. The best time of our lives.

Until we are noticed.

It is only a matter of time before private interests snatch us up and tries to weaponize the phenomenon. Within a year, they will isolate the biological mechanism, and produce machines that can do it on a mass scale. In a decade, corporations will have near-total control over probability. Random chance will become as obsolete as rotary phones. The course of the future will be dictated by whoever controls this technology. They will be like unto gods among men.

Until the inevitable side effects. All of the research will be into controlling probability on a macroscopic level, with no understanding about what is happening on a quantum scale despite the pleas of one lone scientist with predictions of doom and wild hair. Soon enough, matter will begin to rip apart at a subatomic level. Because certain events that were supposed to happen in other universes are happening here, the universes will start to bleed together. Reality will shred apart, and everything in the panoply of creation will come undone.

You know what? I’m probably being paranoid. That probably won’t happen. If you have a similar psychological condition, I would love to hear from you.

I’m sure we have a lot to talk about.