What is a Chef?

The kitchen is a small rectangular off-shoot to a larger area that is taken up by a large workstation designated for the pastry chefs, large pots and pans, a wash-up area, shelving, a dry foods storage area, a sink for food preparation, a large freezer and other fixtures that make even the largest part of the kitchen appear small. The main cooking area is claustrophobic yet brutally efficient in its layout that ensures no energy or movement is wasted and this trait is reflected in the mannerisms and attitudes of the chefs. The room is flanked on three sides by workstations and equipment; in the far corner underneath the only window in the kitchen is a sink; alongside which is the solid-top stove, a chargrill, a six-burner stove, a set of deep fat fryers, and Rational oven. Above the cooking range runs a shelf for hot holding food during service, as does a salamander grill that never gets used. Opposite the six-burner is where starters are prepared and plated, the hot plate and pass is opposite the solid-top, in the corner is the sous vide water bath, along the far wall is the mise en place, an organised section of two litre tubs containing prepared ingredients, sauces and herbs ready for service. In the centre of the room is another workstation that is overloaded with chopping boards, knives, trays and resting meat.

The chefs are all too young to care about the long working hours, all of them wear short sleeved chef whites with the sleeves rolled up even higher. The conversation quickly moves between being terse, sometimes obscene, sometimes nonsensical. Aprons are of various levels of cleanliness and exposed arms are decorated with tattoos of various taste. The head chef Connor is twenty-four years old and, in spite of his age, is arguably the most talented and natural chef I have worked under. He stands just under average height at five foot nine, is stocky in frame and with square features and body that makes it look like he were designed on graph paper. His tightly curled red hair matches his temperament, his square hands are oversized and give the perception that he is incapable of doing anything delicate let alone cook and present food to the highest of standards. His arms are heavily tattooed with images of questionable class; a Mexican Day of the Dead skull wearing a chefs hat, a stylised owl perched upon a honing steel, a rose, a large I.O. Shen chefs knife, and the phrase “chefs life.” He is not classically trained, rather he started as a kitchen assistant washing up so he could buy weed, which he still uses regularly to unwind after work, before soon finding himself working his way up the culinary ladder until he was working in Michelin-starred kitchens, in grand hotels and under a celebrity chef and big name of French cookery.

Unfortunately, maybe due to being in a position of authority at a young age or maybe due to having a chip on his shoulder, Connor inherited the ugliest trait of classic French cookery – the belief that a chef has to be an arsehole. As a person as single-minded in his ambitions and ego, for Connor, anyone that wasn’t as stressed or without a fierce look in their eye simply wasn’t working as hard as him and therefore deserving of his temper. The mythos is passed down the generations until it becomes a fabric of our society – not as an ideal but as a code of honour. Chefs will yell at those who are subordinate to them and words are used that wouldn’t be used outside the confines of a kitchen, until discipline becomes a part of your personality and you too may eventually have subordinates to belittle. Marco Pierre White exists within us all. White Heat doesn’t hold a place in our hearts as a cookbook but as an instruction manual on the mental fortitude required for being a chef and the attitude you are privileged to if you can make the grade. Celebrity chef as real chef, chefs as commodities, cooking as performance; and it is a good performance that sucks you into a dark and aggressive place with a blood and guts attitude to food that will not accept anything other than your unwavering commitment to the cause. Fall for the performance and you may end up as part of professional cookery’s military complex and believe cooking to be the most important work imaginable.

Young chefs like Connor fall into the regime easier than they should and without the thought or graciousness to consider an alternative. A warped passion sends actors over the edge and justifies any amorality that may have entered their character – as long as you’re the best you can have free reign to treat others however you want. But of course our militarism does the job, the consolation being you learn how to do something with your hands and heart. You learn the details of comradeship too: you know that when the shit hits the fan, which it will do no matter how well planned the operation, you can all dig deep into the bowels of your passion and pull out a service from nowhere, that’s when you’re thankful a bunch of mean bastards can pull together and get stuff done.

For most people, television defines their experience of a chef. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all brought into it: the swearing, the violence, the flared tempers; as if brutalism were the most natural and beautiful way for a human being to act. The problem being it makes good television and the kitchens virulent culture of violence feeds off itself and reassures itself that its ways are just and never stops to think that maybe people don’t like being bullied. Our professionalism to food outweighs our professionalism to people; brushed aside with ultimate stress and complete dedication to quality of food and flavour, nothing else comes into the equation. Our military code allows us to cook, to plate up and deal with anything that comes up against you. It can teach you anything but empathy.

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