So, on the subject of honesty, this month I wanted to share a response to a recent question I was asked. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been visiting High schools and the local college. I was there to help with recent food tech assignments and then share my experience of my transition from student, to chef, to small business owner respectively. While at these events, I was asked why I wanted to be a chef, and do I enjoy my career? A simple question to some, but my own response surprised myself.
Yes, I love being a chef. But, here’s the thing. I really fucking love being a chef. Obviously, I didn’t swear in front of the students, but as I spoke to these classes, especially the latter college students, I really astounded myself with my own enthusiasm. The more I spoke about my journey, the more I realised what I had been through, what I had experienced and how much I have achieved. Not necessarily professionally, but personally. This led me to come home and write this blog.
I love being a chef. I love what it is and what it means. To be a chef, we are charged with the responsibility of providing sustenance to people. We do this in the forms of functional food as well as aesthetically beautiful plates. Whether we work in a school dinner canteen or a three-star Michelin restaurant, we all want the same thing.
I am a fan of chefs. From Auguste Escoffier, to Marco Pierre White, to Clare Smyth. But also, from Fanny Craddock to the current Chef of the Month on The Staff Canteen Website. These are all my heroes, but then I look closer to home and watch the chaps in the local kebab shop taking absolute pride in the smallest detail of their job. Being a chef is more than tall hats, sharp knives and swearing. It really is a way of life and it reaches deeper than how we dress for 14 hours a day. We are all connected by passion.
When we look into the detail of our job. We are also responsible for the health and wellbeing of everyone who eats our food. The dishes we create are designed for people to ingest. I know that sounds sciency and weird. But just think about that for a second. People trust us, that much, that they are willing to let our food enter their bodies, on a cellular level. We make poisonous things, edible. We combine bland things to create powerful flavours. The dishes we create could be part of someone’s greatest memory. A momentary footnote to a marriage proposal, the sandwich being eaten while receiving news or just an inspirational image on social media. The impact of what we do can be spectacular. It may often go unnoticed, but sometimes, when we get that “Compliments to the chef!” shout out from a customer, on the surface we may just nod in acknowledgment and mumble “cheers”. But inside the fireworks are going off, the dream sequence plays though your mind of you collecting an award at the World’s Best 50 restaurants award. Even though it was only a chilli nacho they were talking about.
The things we do and take for granted are incredible. We are chefs. Yes, the career and lifestyle is hard. But it’s not the toughest. There are plenty of other industries with equally tougher lifestyles, less pay and less respect. I can only speak of my own experiences though.
There are several moments which I can single out as “defining” in my life over the flames. But I’ll share with you, the most nostalgic. As a young student chef at Suffolk College back in the 90’s, rocking my devilishly handsome, bumfluff moustache, flat-top hair cut and 5% bodyfat. I remember being in a fairly chilled evening session, led by our glorious leader of a head Chef lecturer Mr Paul Barnes. He’s famous among graduating chefs here in Ipswich. He was the type of chef who could make you feel like a king/queen or the village idiot with his wit. An old-school chef, always impeccably dressed and clean shaven. He was a walking La Repertoire de Cuisine. He knew EVERYTHING. He even knew which clubs or bars we had been in when we rolled in late for class/service.
I digress…. On this evening, service was steady. We had one of our strongest groups in the kitchen and it wasn’t overly busy. All evening Chef Barnes (Barnsie) had been floating around the kitchen, minesweeping ingredients from everyone’s unused Mise en Place. As service ended and we were using the stove bricks on the solid-top range and washing down surfaces, Barnsie opened an oven. He pulled out a large copper casserole dish. Even though it had a heavy lid, the smell was like nothing I had ever experienced. Heads all turned. Our curious young chef brains were snapped away from the monotonous cleaning duties. Hypnotised by the scent of garlic, herbs and meat. Barnsie removed the lid and the steam billowed out like a mushroom cloud which follows the dropping of an atomic bomb, filling the kitchen with a tsunami of strong aromatics. I know my memory may be rose tinting this moment. But I’ll take that. This was a Cassoulet. What you have to bear in mind here is that most of us student chefs were used to reading classic recipes, looking at pictures of these dishes. Creating our interpretation of them (probably badly). But these were not OUR dishes. I was raised on a mix of Caribbean cookery and beige British food like Findus Crispy pancakes, chicken nuggets and oven chips with beans. I had never eaten food cooked by an actual Master of French cuisine. As he shared out tasters for us all and spoke to us about the dish. All I can remember thinking is “This is the best thing I have ever fucking eaten IN MY LIFE”. That was a moment I knew I really wanted to be a chef. I started to understand what food could do. It was more that just eating, fuelling and stopping hunger. Food could be emotional. Spiritual even. Up until this point, I knew people could enjoy food. But that was based on food just tasting nice or their being mountains of it. My food memories up to that point were based on times I had eaten in excess. Christmas and family events etc.
To this day, I still try to replicate that dish. Even if I do now make a lovely cassoulet, I don’t expect it to have the same impact on anyone else. As chefs, we find our inspiration in many places, dishes and people. But our passion can be triggered in a single moment. A word, a smell a sound. A moment comes where we are reminded why we do what we do and why we love it.
So, when I write a blog which may sound a bit “Being a chef is shit…. I’ve got no friends!” It’s only because I love it so much, that it hurts, because it’s not perfect. I wish the lifestyle was better for ALL chefs. I wish we didn’t have to accept the hours as that’s how it is, deal with it! I love this career. Many of us could appear on Jeremy Kyle under the title “I think my career choice hates me… but I still love it”. Viewers watching, scratching their heads. Thinking, why would you work until midnight, go out for drinks and then be back at work for 9.30am?
It’s the passion which drives us. Try to remember the moments which made you want this. Do your part to inspire the next generation of chefs. Nurture that enthusiasm of the commis/trainee chef. Go visit schools and colleges and remind yourself who you are.