Common Foodsense: Future Cooks Must Live and Breathe the Food World
If your line cooks aren’t aware that an old vine Zinfandel is the perfect wine with a grilled peanut butter sandwich, I have to ask you: why not?
This is a pairing that should be obvious. Old vine Zins (rather like cooks in general) tend to be a little crude and completely unapologetic about it. They have enough ferocity to cut through a mouthful of grease, carbohydrates and peanut-based sludge, and still hit the palate like a baseball bat. It’s a marriage from diner heaven, but does anyone sell it? Does anyone think about it? Does anyone have time? And thus, my lunch leads us to a discussion of cooking schools.
Amidst the proliferation of professional cooking schools across the country, there are still unanswered questions about the philosophy behind them. I grew up in an era where such things were often viewed with suspicion: Apprenticeship was pretty much dead by then, but the model was still in everyone’s head.
You take a callow kid, preferably in his (almost always his) early teens, work the crap out of him, and eight years or so later you’ve got yourself a decent line cook. If he can read and write—and this was not always the case; don’t laugh—he can keep moving up. After 20 years, he might meet the minimum qualifications for a head chef. Better to be a sous for another decade, though, under one of the old-guy chefs who knows everything, and then to accept the old guy’s toque of infallibility when angina finally moves him aside.
Into this world came a trickle of people who come to the profession by a different route, and we had certain prejudices about them. We’d say sure, they know how to make a roux … they made one in class. Got an A, too. Then we’d look at each other and ask if they’d ever made 40 pounds of it. Hell, I’ve done it so often I’ve burned 40 pounds of roux. They’ve made a stock, sure, and started it with cold water, just like every three-star chef says. But if you need 20 gallons of chicken stock by four in the afternoon and it’s 11:05 a.m. and you don’t have a steam-jacket kettle, you need to put religion aside and fill the damn pot with hot water so it doesn’t take 45 minutes just to get to a boil. Or buy some base.
The tech school kids, at least, had been beaten up by real restaurant people, so it was easier to forgive them for having done it in an academic setting. They’d been overworked, belittled, insulted, given too few towels per shift, sent home to fetch a clean chef’s coat, and told that they’d be lucky to last a year in the industry at a buck over minimum wage. The ones who went to the fancy private schools (and there were only a few of them when I was young) were often the guys who wore entitlement like bad cologne. They’d been told that they were training to become chefs, and even before the Food Network, there were the Bocuses and the Pepins of the world to dream about. Of course, no one pointed out that the word “chef” in French has nothing to do with cooking; it simply means “boss,” and you ain’t coming out of no cooking school and takin’ over my kitchen.
I’m still hearing some echoes of those old prejudices. Having been afflicted with them myself, I recognize them pretty easily. It surprises me, though, that in an era where apprenticeship is resisting any attempts at reanimation, some chefs still think that they can teach a cook everything that is necessary to be taught. Maybe you can teach them everything necessary to cook in your restaurant—congratulations. McDonald’s can do that, and does it quicker and better than anyone.
The old idea of apprenticeship was to teach them a profession, not a job. They were supposed to gain a uniform set of skills that they could take anywhere; hence “journeyman,” the career stage which followed apprenticeship. And during that long learning adolescence, you lived and breathed your work, gaining muscle memory, sense memory, culinary repertoire, and knowledge of the history of the profession and a sense of your own place in it.
Does anyone stay at one place long enough to do that anymore? Does anyone start young enough? Does the sous chef have time to talk about Carême to the new fry cook?
Will the exec find time in her day to sit down with the pantryman and teach him how to figure a yield loss on zucchini?
And that’s where the schools come in. The profession is well served when its denizens have a period of time when they can think about the food world as a whole, and not just the four-top on table 12. Only with an imagination at least briefly unfettered will we find the freedom to wonder what wine goes best with a peanut butter sandwich.
Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of Foodsense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-236-6463.