What makes a "Chef"?
Im speaking at The Commonwealth Club tonight on a panel called "Climbing the SF Foodchain" with Craig Stoll from Delfina, Anthony Mynt from Mission Chinese, and Richie Nakano from Hapa Ramen. I think it'll be an interesting talk. Something we've been focusing on in the lead up, and what I think will be a really good topic, is difference between the "Old school" and "New school" food scene. There is a definite, mostly unspoken (sometimes screamed from the rooftops),tension between the two.
Traditional chefs go to culinary school, work the line in restaurants for years , go to France to apprentice. Years of repetition, studying the science and technique of food. The new school just started doing it. Decided that having a food cart would be fun, had a good recipe and the balls to stand outside and brave the cops and possible crushing failure, and got out on the street.
Both schools have their positives and negatives, but with these two schools working side by side in the city, the definition of what a "Chef" is becomes blurry. The old school put in the time, the new school has the saavy to create something new and unique. I put myself firmly in the new school. I can cook, don't get me wrong, but I havn't worked on the line for years (and honestly I never will, it's not how my mind works). I trade in ideas as much as flavors, and create what I think almost as installation art pieces as much as dinners. Moments in time that people share, that may never reappear.
A Chef has always been someone who has worked their way up from the bottom, has unsurpassed technical skill. Is that what it means to be a Chef? Or is a Chef a person can create an culinary experience for people? A menu and a scene that creates a unique experience, like an underground dinner. These experiences have as much to do with the ideas and the company as they do with the food, but if we're honest, so does any meal. It's cliche, but a simple meal cooked with friends can be a better experience than the most button up 3 star restaurant. The most delicious food in the world, served in an empty restaurant, is not successful food. So what is the most important part of a restaurant experience? It's hard to say.
We can't deny that the ideas around the food we eat inform our enjoyment as much as the flavors. Words like "local" "organic", "foraged", or "artisan", do make food taste better. We'll pay more for it because we believe it's not only the right thing to do, but we feel it supports the kind of people we want to be - honest and hardworking, people with integrity working within a system that seems totally bereft of any honesty.
Honestly I get uncomfortable when someone calls me a chef. I create menus, create dinners, make money from selling food, truly enjoy the experience of creating dishes, finding the perfect balance not only in a dish, but throughout a full menu, but I'm not sure I'm a "Chef". Like anyone should who is trying to create something larger than themselves, I have my weak spots, and I work with people that fill in the holes of my abilities. I have a vision, and I find the people who help me make it happen. That doesn't mean that they are the "Chef" either. The menu us my vision, the dinner is my creation, so giving them that title wouldn't be fair either. Is it the technical skills or the ideas that are important? I don't like the idea of not giving credit where it's due, but its a confusing balance. I've settled on "co-chef", which could also be "chef de cuisine", but I feel like that title has a subordinate connotation. It's still not a clear distinction, and in the fast paced military style of a kitchen, a lack of a clear leader can cause problems.
So what makes a Chef? At the end of this ramble, Im still not sure. What I know is that I am going to sit on a panel tomorrow with three people who have worked in restaurant kitchens more than I have. I've taken a different path, but I feel like I havn't done so bad myself. Perhaps fists will fly, blood pressure will rise, and we'll get into some of the real meat of what this all means. Don't miss it.
Tonight at 6:30, Commonwealth Club, SF
To see: Here
To hear: Here