Archives for: December 2006, 06
Over the summer, I caught episodes of a horrible network TV "reality" cooking show called "Hell's Kitchen". The contestants weren't truly professionals, the contests were usually ridiculous, the host violent and the prize grandiose and inappropriate. Gross, freaky and cruel stunts in the name of cuisine? Pass the remote!
The other night I tuned in to BRAVO's "Top Chef". Talented, creative cooks of some proficiency compete for the Grand Prize of a professionally-outfitted kitchen, $100,000, and other big benefits, as well as for sub-prizes along the way, including a very-limited-edition knife and the placement of one's dish on the menu of a big national chain. As a former chef, I found myself wondering what I'd do, for each contest.
One challenge was a team effort toward presenting specific ethnic cuisines (Team Vietnam vs. Team Korea) at a big trade event in LA. Others were individual: Inventing and executing 3 quarts of an original ice cream flavor for mobs of children at the seashore; creating and serving a comfort food lunch at a stationhouse full of hungry firemen; creating a sushi dish to be judged by one of LA's top Japanese sushi masters --- all under tight time constraints and on budget. Very inspired ideas, I thought.
I don't yet know who won the Grand Prize. But a 44 year old caterer named Betty won two of the subprizes (the knife and the menu spot), and an executive chef named Cliff won two rounds as well. Personality-wise, Betty reminded me somewhat of myself: Personably interacting with diners and competitors as well as, good-humoredly, judges.
The challenges a chef faces, I was reminded, are complex and rigorous, demanding a very well integrated, supple p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l-i-t-y. Chefs with massive egos abound and are legendary, but they fail, in the clutch, without staffs willing to cover - often thanklessly - for the wide gaps in their inflated psyches. Cooking may itself be an art, but chef'ing is much moreso: The curtain goes up, hungry and demanding customers order and wait, staff rallies (or not), and the show must go on. During every shift, things "go wrong": Accidents happen, equipment breaks down, a baker doesn't show up, a waiter quits, the soup boils over, pasta sticks, plates get cold, tempers flare, and/or the weak crack. All the while, the front of the house must remain serene, receiving no overflow of kitchen mayhem.
"Top Chef"s contestant, Betty, reprimands a whining competitor who is not rising to the challenge of his brief time remaining, "OK! Forget the broken deep-fryer!" Move on! Fix your problem!": Good advice she was forced to implement herself when her griddle failed as she was preparing grilled cheese sandwiches; she quickly hauled out several frying pans and lit the stove (and won the round!).
I was reminded of the circumstances of my own promotion to full Dinner Chef. I was working under a volatile chef named Arthur when, on a Saturday night, a vegetable special ran out very early due to Arthur's miscalculation/misapportionment. He had no backup, and was ranting and panicking while plates were backing up and customers waiting. I'd quietly told the manager I could be ready to present a new vegetable in 5 to 8 minutes. Arthur didn't like our whispering and hurled a cleaver past me into a wall. The manager glared at me: "Can you do it? Do it". There was no time to emote about the heavy cleaver that had just audibly whizzed by my head. Asking a dishwasher to fill a prep sink with cold water, I ran out to our walk-in, lugged in a couple of flats of zucchini and fired up the sauté pans, dumping surplus chopped onion and celery in with the butter while my trusty dishwasher friend wiped down those zucchies for me. I sliced, lightly sautéed, herbed, seasoned, and co-presented the new vegetable with fresh rounds of main course special, and they flew out the swinging door -- No applause; just unsuspecting and contented customers, and just another night in the kitchen.
This type of scenario (sans knife-throwing) is acutally typical. Ingenuity, teamwork and technical know-how must be constantly and often unexpectedly summoned toward fixing, repairing, covering, reconnoitering, compensating, assisting, and - yes - pleasing - all with a smile (and, in my case, always a song in my head). The setting, varying from restaurant to restaurant, can be one of extremely high pressure and hazard. It takes a very strong individual and streamlined team-dynamics (and excellent hiring choices!) to pull it off night after night after night.
It was, indeed, to character flaws that some of "Top Chef"s disqualified contestants succumbed. One blew it during the Shopping phase, compromising his entire team's performance by effectively stealing a flat of lichee nuts from the market. Another sent out plates full of oversalted dishes, because she didn't want to send out NOTHING, and thus insulted the diners. Neither of these two was thinking clearly under time constraints. When their judgment snapped, their underlying ignorance of crucial aspects of the job was revealed, along with the lack of a solid professionalism undergirding whatever technical wizardry or artistry they might exhibit. (Pure and simple creativity are fine in one's own home setting: Honey and Junior won't walk out and give you bad press if the potatoes are too dry, nor will the place close down if the service is consistently slow.)
Betty, like me, understood and deftly navigated the energetics and dynamics of chef'ing, from concept through shopping, prepping, and executing, to presentation, flowing like a river over the rocks.
As for me, I was told by the manager, at the end of the Night of the Flying Cleaver, "I'm authorized to give you your own kitchen. Start tomorrow?"