The Prestige of Cooking

I’ve never come to terms with the idea that being a chef is worthy of any attention, let alone glamour. Television is to blame, its maddening love of kitchens and those who work in them infects television screens like an invasive bacteria, spitting out and feeding into a belief that being a chef is about something as simple as cooking. It engulfs everyone and we’re all complicit in the charade, the pull of cooking so beguiling that we end up watching just about anyone, from amateurs who cook to amateurs who bake, celebrity chefs in studios, nutritionists who tell you what to eat and those who tell you what to eat on a budget; it even extends beyond television, mothers, lovers, blokes around barbecues, beer in hand, with no clue of what they are doing. Then there are the catering students, fresh from college, pretending to know something about cooking and caught up in the glamour of owning a set of knives and the fantasy that working in a kitchen will bring stardom. But anyone who knows anything in this trade understands that we’re all guessing, we all know fuck all and we’ll never be the person on the television. All we can hope for is to be one of their grunts and be a small part of their success. I still feel the prestige though. Sometimes that means something when you are stuck in a kitchen all day and when service comes round, knowing people will be catching glimpses of you work through the open pass and thanking you for their meal as they leave.

I think all chefs have their mothers to be thankful for. That’s where it all begins, all of our earliest memories of food stems from our mothers. Mine is learning the family recipe for a sausage and bean casserole that we call ‘cowboy dinner,’ possibly in homage of that scene from Blazing Saddles, and always served with lumpy mashed potatoes. My mother is also the reason I got into kitchens as a career, giving my a job to cook for children at the nursery she managed where I learnt the fundamentals of cooking in bulk and cooking in time.

My awakening to the glamour of cooking came thanks to a chef named Alistair who saw an idiot taking their first step from kitchen porter to kitchen trainee and showed me that standards and talent were possible, even in a bog-standard gastropub. He was the first to show me that, no matter how much your back is against the wall, not every item on the menu needs to go through a microwave and that freshly baked bread is essential for any restaurant with ambition. He lent me battered copies of two books: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. As far as chefs are concerned these are the seminal classics of literature. You can forget anything you were taught at high school, a copy of Jane Eyre would only find use to mop up a spillage, but Bourdain is crass enough for us to understand and even brought some sense to the drugs, life and idiocy of kitchens. White Heat is pure sex appeal. Dishevelled chef jacket, total bravado, fire and fury sort of sex appeal. Just look at the photographs — pure sex appeal and outdated recipes. Those books taught me something though. Mainly that is was cool to be in kitchens, to be outside of normal society, to be part of a counterculture (or maybe that should be anti-culture), and once you let yourself get pulled in, there’s no getting out. There’s not much incentive to get out when you start thinking of yourself as one of those crazy guys who cooks and get absorbed in the ideology of its sex appeal. Alistair was also a borderline alcoholic and diabetic, a dangerous combination when alcohol is constantly accessible and eating is something you ironically don’t do whilst at work. You never think about how you are depriving yourself of eating when you first start. While others enjoy the food you have been preparing all day, you’re still working. Your whole body clock gets screwed up and you forget when an acceptable time to eat is. Even on days off I find myself eating lunch at 4 o’clock or simply not eating at all only because it’s what I am now accustomed to. Alistair was a man of excess who drank too much and worked too single-mindedly; balding, a heavy smoker, who only saw cooking his way or no-way at all, he would work surviving on pints of premium lager, Coca-Cola, insulin shots and then nearly entire tubs of ice cream during the inevitable crash in his blood sugar levels. Ultimately he became disappointed that customers didn’t understand his brand of good food and didn’t order his freshly made pappardelle or galantine of chicken and, when the newly opened restaurant turned into a faux pub, he eventually left without notice with myself leaving shortly after.

I always considered Alistair to be the ‘correct’ kind of glamour associated with our trade; who did it for the love of making things from scratch, cooking properly and for feeding people, unlike a previous patron chef I worked for who once appeared on national television. Talking about his brief stint with fame was his speciality — once while we collectively and silently peeled potatoes he told us, “This time last year I was television. Mad innit?” Upon my initial interview he asked whether or not I had watched him, as he did to both front and back of house staff he hired — I lied that I had and got the job. There is a reason why cookery programmes are all pervasive, why television specialises them for every chef, every cuisine and every country that is as simple as the memory of being cooked for by a loved one. Lots of us outsource cooking for convenience, most of us having little time or patience to cook after work, but our leisure is devoted to watching cookery, food we ultimately cannot eat — pointless as food can be. Even cookery programmes have a mother in Julia Child when she first hosted The French Chef in 1963 and proved that cookery could attract the engrossed attention of anyone, even men who were incapable of making a bowl of cereal. To watch cooking is to feel that love of being cooked for again. We have to eat. Hunger bears down on us like a rabid dog that consumes all thoughts and motives until we can appease it. If we can find something else in that hunger then we should. If we can impress someone with something as simple as chopping an onion then we should embrace the communality of cooking so that we become more than just hungry bodies. Something happens when wine is poured and we sit down to eat and to facilitate that is the ultimate prestige.

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