Chef Gerard Maras posted a quote from Alton Brown on Facebook recently: “Very good cooks who are employed as ‘chefs’ rarely refer to themselves as ‘chefs.’ The refer to themselves as ‘cooks.’”
It made me think about the definition of a “chef,” and how that definition has changed over the last few decades.
When I was a younger man, my then-wife and I had dinner for my birthday at a restaurant called Chanterelle in New York. When someone came to ask whether we had any questions about the menu (and I’m digressing, but it was a wonderful restaurant and I framed the two menus I still have from the place, because they had artists design them and they were hand-written) and my then-wife, who is a lovely person and thought she was complimenting me because she knew how much I loved to cook, said that I was a chef.
I said that I wasn’t because I wasn’t a chef then and I’m not now and at that point I’d been writing about restaurants long enough to know that the title “chef” means something.
Merriam Webster defines ‘chef’ as, “a skilled professional cook” and then, “specifically, one who is in charge of a professional kitchen.” That last bit is, to me, more important. It’s also the place that the traditional definition of “chef” parts from the commonly accepted definition now. Because I suspect most people these days think “chef” means “person who gets paid to cook.”
I don’t think that’s true, and I think it matters.
There’s a lot more to running a kitchen than just being able to cook. It’s writing the menu. It’s sourcing and pricing ingredients from purveyors – and inspecting the deliveries when they arrive. It’s being able to step into any station when one of your cooks doesn’t show up, while still expediting.
It’s being able to manage the sort of interesting personalities you get in a professional kitchen. It’s knowing where the first-aid kit is, and making sure everybody else knows, too. It’s training everyone on how your menu should be cooked and plated and it’s letting the cooks you’ve been training come up with their own dishes because if you are doing it right, they will open their own restaurant at some point and that will make you happy. I know I am leaving things out, but the point is that being a chef is not just about cooking.
When I first started writing about restaurants in the late ’90s, I wrote about chefs as though they were magical. I both gave them too much credit and not enough. I gave them too much credit because most if not all of the food I ate at every restaurant was prepared for me by cooks, not the “chef.” Maybe I gave them too much credit because I wanted to believe there was something magical about what they did.
But then I got to know a lot of chefs and I got to spend time in professional kitchens. What I saw was not magic, it was hard work. It made me realize the effort that goes into giving us the food we enjoy, photograph and write about. It made me respect the cooks and the chefs more than I had before, because ok sometimes it’s magic but it’s always hard work.
I have tremendous respect for everyone who works in a restaurant. It’s not an easy life and it’s not going to make you rich. Some folks do it because it’s what they can do at the moment, but then there are people who are called to it. Those are the people who make great food and sometimes they are chefs.
When I think “chef,” I think Rene Bajeux. When I last talked to Chef Bajeux, he was working at the Palace Café, running their charcuterie program and teaching young cooks. I think I knew Rene well enough to know that when he told me that he was happy teaching young cooks the classic recipes, he was serious. He was a teacher and he had a deep love for the food he cooked.
When I first thought about how to approach this topic, I thought I would ask a bunch of chefs to define what it means to be a chef and then I would take those quotes and write something out of it. I asked two chefs directly if I could interview them, but neither expressed much of an interest.
But then I thought to myself, “what do I think defines a chef?” Rene Bajeux is the first answer that pops into my head and that’s not something anyone who cooks in New Orleans is going to argue with, I think.