Pete Wells wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times last week on the subject of chefs and profanity. Entitled, “Too Much Heat in the TV Kitchen?,” the article notes that while extreme language in the kitchen is nothing new, largely unedited consumption of it by the media, and then the reading/television viewing public -is- a new, rather odd, phenomenon.
Opening the story with examples from the latest episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” where the contestants melt down and fling curses and imprecations at each other, a March 24 New Yorker profile of Chef David Chang (a great article, by the way–if it was online, I’d link to it), and of course, the notorious Gordon Ramsay of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares,” Wells’ readers are deluged with a barrage of video and print evidence that chefs are angry, foul-mouthed individuals who apparently cannot express themselves verbally without tossing expletives into their sentences like croûtons into a salad.
And, apparently, not only does the public like it that way, they now -expect- it to be that way. In the new mythology of television reality shows, chefs are swaggering bad boys, badder than rock stars, and ten times tougher, in large part because they carry knives and play with fire twelve hours a day under working conditions that would make the average testosterone-laden, hard-drinking, heroin-shooting, groupie-banging lead guitarist run away, crying like a little girl for mamma.
And if there is one thing that is true, we humans like our myths.
Especially if they are based in part on truth.
Because, the truth is that most restaurant kitchens are stressful and hellish workplaces in the best of times. They are most often cramped, filled with dangerous equipment which may or may not work properly, open flames from various sources, both fixed and movable, inadequate ventilation, open vats of boiling oil, not to mention loads of very sharp objects which are meant to cut, rend and otherwise disassemble ingredients, but which are equally capable of taking off a finger or portion thereof, or ripping open an arm, a hand or any other body part that gets in the way. (No I am not just talking about knives, but also electrical equipment like bone saws, food processors, immersion blenders, and meat slicers, all of which carry immense destructive potential.)
And the stress–the necessity of working impossibly quickly and accurately, of neither wasting valuable raw materials, nor sending out inferior product, and of putting out sometimes hundreds upon hundreds of plates a night–all while working in close quarters with similarly stressed out people–it is enough to crack anyone one at least once.
When you put human beings into work conditions like these, and push them to perform perfectly, you cannot expect them to not blow off steam somehow. That is where the swaggering comes in, the gallows humor, the profane banter, and the camaraderie where insults become terms of endearment and where sexual innuendo and blatant sexual harassment of both men and women becomes the norm. (This is why many restaurant kitchens are considered to be hostile workplaces to women–a situation which is changing, and which is not the focus of this essay, but which I will talk about in the future.)
You have to understand that most kitchen workers are overworked, underpaid, and often have very little life outside the kitchen. They don’t get enough sleep, they often eat too little, and they cannot relax in any normal way, so they turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, and yes, foul language, to make it through the days and nights of their existence, all so they can turn out endless plates of gorgeous food for people who have the money and leisure time to spend on it, people who most often would never sit down to break bread with these cooks, and even if they would, might be dismayed at how the cooks would act and talk at the table.
This sort of adaptive behavior–reacting to extreme stress with foul language, dark humor and consumption of various inebriating substances–is nothing to be ashamed of, but nor should it be lionized, either.
I mean, it used to be, and still is true, that when chefs were called out to the dining room to speak to a table of guests, they would behave graciously and with courtesy. (There have always been exceptions–Marco Pierre White, the original chef from hell who once made a young cook named Gordon Ramsay cry, for example, is also said to have thrown customers out of his three-star restaurants for requesting salt and pepper.)
But now, it seems that we Americans expect all chefs to be the way we see a few of them act on television, that having a foul-mouthed, bullying persona is normal and natural to the life of a chef.
A lot of people might blame all of this reverence toward the irreverence of chefs and cooks on Anthony Bourdain, because his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, laid bare the seedy underbelly of the culinary world, and was for most people who had never stepped foot into a professional kitchen, a revelation. It was a look inside the harsh, hard life of line cooks and chefs, a look at what kitchens are really like for non-celebrities and it did whet readers’ appetites for the gritty ugliness that supports and creates the glittering facade of haute cuisine. But, the truth is that all Bourdain did was tell the unvarnished truth of his life and the lives of fellow cooks and chefs. Yes, he glorified that life, because he was living it, he loved it and he loved those in that life–but that is because you cannot possibly live and work in that way without loving it. You -have- to be tough, you have to be strong and you have to have a thick skin to get by and ultimately succeed in a professional kitchen.
But what American television producers have also ignored when they show Gordon Ramsay heaping abuse on the hapless, untalented victims who volunteer to be terrorized on his show “Hell’s Kitchen”, is that in order to be as successful a chef as Ramsay (who has a total of twelve Michelin stars to his credit, which is no mean feat), you not only have to have a thick skin and a load of talent.
You have to have heart.
You have to have passion.
You have to have love.
And not just for food, either.
You have to love people.
You have to love the people you work with and for, even if you sometimes lose your temper and yell.
You have to love the people you are feeding, because that is what being a chef is truly all about.
It is about feeding people, body and soul, the creation of your heart and hands. It is about giving them love in the visceral form of food that has been elevated beyond simple sustenance into the realm of art.
It is about giving them a piece of yourself.
That is what I find most disturbing about the recent insistence upon portraying all chefs as bullying, ego-driven martinets who seem to revel in treating their cooks and each other as verbal punching bags. It bothers me because I know that in order to cook from the heart and make food that will make grown men weep with joy and longing, you have to have a heart to cook from.
And that is the truth that Bourdain knew and knows, that Ramsay and White both know, but which I fear American television producers ignore and misrepresent in the name of ratings.
And it is a god damned shame.
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