Don’t Thank The Chef


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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.