the question.

the question.

Cooks have strong opinions. They're quick to tell you which restaurants suck and which ones don’t. They'll go on for hours about what their favorite seasonal ingredients are. When they taste your food, they're likely to tell you it needs more salt, and that the olive oil you used is starting to go rancid. So it's surprising how easy it is to stump a cook with a simple question--one that you would hope they could answer easily and confidently. The next time you're talking to one, ask them: Why do you cook?

* "I’ve been doing it for years...im good at it..."
* "I hated my old job, but I have fun cooking..."
* "My parole officer set me up with this job..."

The truth is, there isn't just one answer to this question. It's complicated.... like the cooks themselves. What’s obvious is this: we don’t cook to get rich--that would be stupid. Too fucking hard, and too little pay. We don't cook in hopes of being famous one day--for every Daniel Boloud there are ten Rachel Rays, and a thousand "top chefs." The answers are there. They're just not plain to see.

One reason we cook is because we're masochistic martyrs. No, no, you guys go out and have a nice Friday night. I’m going to stay here and put myself under intense pressure and intense heat, and fight and struggle so you can have a good time. I'm going to miss out on all the fun stuff you go do, but that's ok. I want you to have a good time. Good times would be wasted on me. And besides, I kind of like the nightly struggle...it makes me all tingly inside. In fact, you might say we crave that panicky feeling right before service.

We also cook because at our hearts, we're whores. Deviant sensualists that seldom experience pleasure like that of giving someone a perfectly seared piece of foie gras, or a slice of a perfectly ripe pear. We're voyeurs. When you order a dish that we cooked ourselves, we're watching to see how you react to it. We want to see that pause of enjoyment--that perfect moment when everything else melts away for the guest and they just taste. That wry grin the grill cook just shot you? It's because he knows he's just played a small role in getting you laid tonight.

We cook because we're heroes and villains all at the same time. Virtuous criminals...good guys that just love being in trouble too much. Our brigade is our gang, and we're fiercely territorial...at least when it comes to FOH being in our kitchen. Cooking keeps us in check, and mostly out of trouble. Hopefully it either starts to set us straight, or beats us down so much all week that we're too tired to go out and get into mischief. Check a cook’s resume from before they started cooking. I guarantee there are a few gaps on there from jobs they either left suddenly or got fired from.

The main reason we cook though is because we like to take care of people. We're hospitable. This reason often has selfishness at its heart. When you feel good, we feel good. Seeing the smiles and laughter, people giving themselves over to the experience--it warms us quicker than a slug of whiskey. We get to watch people fall in love (or lust) right in front of our eyes, every single night. We see people let their guards down, and let their true selves come out. It's a nice thing to watch. Sure, there are moments when we might resent our guests...and if those moments start to outnumber the moments when we love them, it's probably time to look for a different line of work. If we're not doing it for the guest, we're at least doing it for the brigade we work on--pushing our own boundaries (and levels of tolerance) so as to not let the team down. And if we're not cooking for the guest or our team, then they're only cooking for ourselves...and in that case we might as well all fuck off and become private chefs.

The truth is there is no one answer. We don’t have any preset answers to why we cook. We do it because it gives us an overwhelming sense of compassion and camaraderie...and pride. We do it because it's our outlet--the place we find our peace. (even if that peace comes in the midst of a roomful of guests and 35 plates to pick up) It's our way of connecting to the world we sometimes feel removed from. Lastly, cliché as it may sound, we do it out of love.

childhood food memories:

* mom's chicken and rice soup when it was cold...with biscuits
* corn on the cob at nanny and pop-pop's in the summer
* fried fish and miso soup at grandpa's
* dad's teriyaki on the grill
* food from the garden

Cooking professionally is hard. Really hard. So when a cook starts to settle into a groove, it's easy for them to stop evolving. Why push so hard when things just started getting easy? The thing is, a cook is nothing without good technique. What's the point of putting your craft on display if it's foundation is built on shortcuts and doing things the "easy" way? The good news is improving your technique is surprisingly easy...if you're willing to make things harder on yourself for a few nights.

1. Ditch the tongs. - No, seriously. As a sautee or grill cook, there is almost no reason at all to use them. Sure, they come in handy sometimes, but using them to flip your fish, then stir a sauce, then plate your pasta seems kinda...gross, doesn’t it? Try this: for one night, only use a spoon or spatula to plate your food. A spoon is elegant--and hopefully, so is the food you cook. Once you start to feel comfortable with that, branch out and start using it to turn your protein, emulsify sauces and stir veg. Once you make the switch you'll be shocked how natural it feels.

2. Chop your herbs to order. - Have you ever looked at your chopped herbs at the end of the night? Despite any sort of wet towel you put under them, they always end up wilted and bruised by the end of service. So try this: pick one herb and try cutting it to order all night. This doesn’t mean wait until the last second to do it--when the order comes in, take 15 seconds to pick it and chop it, then put it aside. It won’t take long for this to become a part of your rhythm. (The exception to this rule is thyme and rosemary, as they’re pretty hearty, but how often are you using these herbs as garnish or in a pasta?)

3. Mimic the cooks that are better than you. - A good cook works clean and fast with a poetic economy of movement. They find ways to save time and energy for when they need it. Watch these cooks, and take the best qualities of each one. The fish cooks touch, the grill guy’s intensity, and the sous chefs’ focus--you need it all.

  • check it out!
  • sometimes a menu change means a massive timing change
  • the progression of seasons makes the year fly by
  • working sick is horrible
  • top chef - does anyone care anymore?

the aforementioned spoons.


duck proscitutto

stinky pancetta

corey's guanciale

9 hour bolognese


dinner at the moss room was amazing--not just because of the sweet treatment we got, but because of the smooth service and the delicious food. its a hell of a thing to finish a nice meal and be standing in golden gate park. chef justin simoneaux is really doing some nice stuff on the menu, like perfectly seared sweetbreads, a crispy guinea fowl confit, and one of the best fish entrees ive had in a while--black cod, chanterelles, short ribs and cippolinis. after dinner i stopped in tsunami, where the nice treatment continued with all sorts of beer and whiskey and sake snacks. it was a truly heart warming night....hospitality is alive and well in SF, depite the sour economy.


Andrew said...

I tell Ginger she's insane every time I talk to her now.

Chris said...

I dig the question, and all the variations of answers.
I am not a pro but I get the same kind of kick out of feeding someone and seeing the eyes go large and hearing the Homer Simpson'esk moanings of pleasure.
Cool blog.

CHEF said...

Ritchie......come on, man,....ditch the tongs? I might as well cut off my hand.......or my penis. The perfect pair of tongs are a thing of beauty.. A perfect pair is like an extension of your hand, and must be chosen with as much care and discrimination as samurais choose a sword. The perfect balance, the perfect grip, just the right spring. I’ve had guys that would leave their knives at the restaurant, but take their tongs home. Now, I know that using them over and over throughout the night can get messy, but can’t that be alleviated by sanitizing throughout the night? I might try it one night, on a slower service, but ditch them all together?
Back me up guys.
Great post otherwise.
- P.S. I think I just back up you claim as to how opinionated chefs can be.

Richie said...

@ Chef:
nah man, not budging on this one. let the spoon set you free....

kirchartfour said...

You ever try picking up some rapini with a spoon?!

Hell nah.

Richie said...

@ kirchartfour:

the short answer: yes, I have picked up rapini with a spoon. and kale, and escarole, and spinach, and beans, and slippery wet pasta.

the long answer: If a cook has reached a level where they have gotten "good" on their station, but have stopped progressing, than how can that cook challenge themself? by trying to get as close to perfection as possible, right? cooking is supposed to be about finesse--and tongs are fairly crude instruments. Think about is this way: no cook that relies on tongs has given spoons a shot: but every cook that uses spoons used to rely on tongs.

its your choice--but good technique doesnt start by always doing whats comfortable.

kirchartfour said...

Well, I like how you're begining to conote that spoons are somehow elitist. So I'll humor you on the kale/rapini/pasta issue.

In addition to the aformetioned, I'd point out that a progressive cook might just use the best suited tool for the given situation.

FGF said...

I suppose your photo could have been placed under various sundry wikipedia entries.

redredsteve said...

I've always felt so inadequate in my answer when someone asks me this same question. Glad to know I'm not the only one that has a hard time putting it into words.

Quick FNG question for you: my pasta and pizzas doughs start turning green and black if I hold them for longer than a day (and sometimes sooner). Any ideas how I can keep them longer? Do I just need to freeze them sooner or would that even help?


Nick said...

I feel like a douche responding to an old post but I thought I had to weigh in re: herbs. How sharp is your knife? A properly (that is, obsessively) sharpened blade of good steel will cut herbs hours before service that remain beautifully fresh and green when you're breaking down -- or even the next day. Not that you'd want to use them the day after, but it all boils down to the same thing -- finesse.

Richie said...

@ Nick

I disagree completely. Chiffonade basil with a sharp knife, and tell me that 5 hours later it's still as good as it was when you cut it.