I started a new term this week with 27 new students. All of whom are… exuberant, to say the least. On the first night of class, I asked my students a rather simple question: “what does it mean to be a chef?” In fact, I assigned it as homework and told them I wanted at least a paragraph, typed with no names. I was operating on the assumption that anonymity breeds honesty. Wanting to do a good job for their new chef, they peppered me with questions like: what if it’s longer than a paragraph; can I read poor handwriting; when is it due and the like. One student mentioned seeing a quote attached to another instructor and asked if he could use that as his premise. I reminded him that I was looking for an honest answer of his own. I answered all the questions and was ready to move on when one caught me off guard. One student asked me “chef, what does it mean to you?” Whoa. What does it mean to me? I stalled, killed some time… stammered, “that’s a fair question.” I had a hard time trying to summarize in my head all that being a chef is, what it entails and all the many detailed minutiae that goes along with this awesome responsibility to above all else make great food.
In this short window of time I wondered how I would be able to explain that being chef these days is not just about being in the kitchen, making great food. That you had better have some secondary skills, know how to communicate, know when to be firm or gentle and know how to fire someone in a way that leaves them with a little dignity. I wanted to tell them about the day that will come when they will ache to work a line station over a sitting in yet another marketing meeting. I wanted to list every positive and negative trait of every chef I ever worked for including some of my own. Is here where I tell them the story about dedication and doing what ever it takes to get the job done as illustrated by the one time I had to clean the restaurant’s bathrooms because my morning dishwasher no called-no showed (or as I like to call it: he fired himself, sparing me the trouble). I wanted to tell them about how I spent my birthday dinner at my restaurant with my family, in a chef coat, shuttling between my table and the expo line to make sure that dinner service was running smoothly. I wanted to talk about sacrifice, the hours, the endless phone calls from vendors, the interviewing and ordering. Does it mean that I’m in charge, that I lead, that set the tone of the kitchen? Does it mean that I get the biggest pay check in the house? Or is it all about the food? How could I possibly begin to explain it all. I gave them a response…. a response that only one who knows could issue. I could feel my brain starting to hurt. Then for some reason a scene from City Slicker’s popped into me head. The scene where Curly explains that the meaning of life is one thing. It all got clear and I said to them, “for me… it’s it one thing.” I wrote one word on the board… giving them the most honest answer I could… L – O – V – E. And moved on….
I went home that night wondering what kind of responses I was going to get… were they going to regurgitate what they think I want to hear or are they really going to be honest? I’m not really sure what I was expecting in terms of responses. The following day, I had forgotten about the assignment and was busy prepping for my demo when one student tried to hand it in. I asked my TA to collect them for me so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try and associate a response with a face. Here is some of what they wrote.
“I love to see the expression on a person’s face when I prepare a meal and the person says ‘good lord man, you really can cook.’ So, me becoming a chef means for me to continue what I’ve always had a passion for which is cooking.”
“It means to do something that I want to do for a living rather than doing something that I have to do.”
“To be a chef is to start with passion and love. You have to want to put others before yourself, knowing there’s a lot of long hours, hard work and in some instances, no appreciation…. to me, being a chef is knowing what your customers/guests want or expect and giving them something extra. It’s all about what you put into it. If you don’t put any love or passion you might as well flip burgers at the local fast food joint.”
“Above all a chef should be unflappable in their kitchen.”
“…you have to have a genuine love for food and a passion for cooking… a chef does what they love, a cook just does it for money.”
“I think it is about taking pride in what you do and have a desire to please the people you feed and keep them coming back.”
“A chef is someone who takes pride in what they do and how they do it. They take pride in their food, kitchen and workers. Passion makes a chef stand out, without passion there is no uniqueness. Knowledge and patience is the key to becoming a great chef. One has to deal with people and complaints everyday they come to work. Becoming a chef is not easy. One has to work long hours, stand on their feet, get burn marks, get yelled at and barely have enough time to sleep. This career is not for the weak minded.”
“A chef has to be able to make everyone happy.”
Most of their paragraphs talked about why they chose to become a chef, the path that they took to land in culinary school or what they hope to do once they get out. With out a doubt, each paper I read expressed a level of passion, commitment, eagerness to learn and hopes for the future. Each impressed me in some way and collectively made me feel like they, in that moment, gave me their best stuff. It made me want to give them mine in return. However, one answer struck me as the most honest:
“I have no idea. I am not a chef. Ask me this question down the road.”
Exactly right and above all, honest.