A Chef’s Journey: Life as a chef. Part 2

In part 1 I touched on some of the frequent questions we as chefs seem to get asked on many an occasion. Although human beings literally eat for a living it still boggles my mind just how  mystified people are when it comes to the things they put in their mouths and into their stomachs. I’ve had to correct many people about their dietary preferences on more than a few occasions. One guest once told me that she was a “strict vegan…but I eat fish”. Then you have “I’m actually Jewish but I eat prawns” and then my most recent one which brought out a giggle in me was “I’m gluten free in the mornings”. The things we hear as chefs are priceless.

In really fancy and top notch restaurants people often see the prim and properly dressed chefs with tall white hats and pristine white uniforms and for some reason treat them as emotionless robots forgetting that behind the professional facade lies a rather creative individual. Similar to the royal guards at Buckingham palace who stand the whole day without emotion and movement, for some reason people tend to distance themselves from the truth of it all…that after its all said and done we’re all human at the end of the day and yes, we do judge you when you make weird dietary requests like well-done venison and well-done poached eggs. I still ask the waiters to repeat an order to me where the guest has asked for dry scrambled eggs or an eggs benedict without the hollandaise sauce.

Do chefs really do nasty things to your plate if you return a dish back to the kitchen because it wasn’t done to your liking? No. True professionals are perfectionists to the core and actually see a returned plate as a challenge and will send you a dish that has been done better than the first time. That myth of people spitting in your food or wiping their anatomy with your rump steak is probably based on some truths but you won’t see such in fine dining and proper pro kitchens. How to avoid it? Don’t eat at cheap eateries and expect 5 star food! 😛 Then again, one of the most famous fine dining chefs in the world, Gordon Ramsay, did send a vegetarian guest some meat in retaliation to something the guest said…

We chefs also suck at returning calls and voice messages. I get messages on my phone from friends and acquiantances and due to the insane hours we work instant message apps are where we live most of the time these days. We cant pick up phones in the kitchen and often wont have more than a split second to glance at them so instant messaging has been a life and relationship saver for most of us who have managed to have normal human interactions with others of our species. Since I’m on the topic, nothing grates my sensitive bits more than a “Hi, what’s for dinner tonight?” message. For some reason it gets to me when I’m asked that especially when we haven’t spoken for a while and its the very first thing you ask me. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive in that way I guess. We love saying to people that we live and breath food…but we actually dont. We’re human beings too at the end of the day and also get tired of talking about food. One thing that we love and rarely get the chance to indulge in is home cooked meals. No one wants to ever cook for us. As soon as I tell a woman what I do for a living she immediately says to me that she would never cook for me! It’s gotten so bad that I don’t tell people what I do anymore unless I need to or unless I’m marketing myself and my business. I remember I once got invited to a Christmas lunch by a friend of mine. The lunch was at her cousins place and I didn’t know the cousin. I told her not to tell the hostess that I’m a chef and that she should just let me enjoy the day. Ha! Less than 15 minutes of us walking through the door I was preparing Christmas lunch at a strangers house.

Another downside to being a chef is that family and friends don’t seem to understand that you do this for a living and it’s your livelihood, paying you for your services seems to be optional to them. I once catered a family funeral of 1000 people…and didn’t get a cent. I don’t mind because I saw it as my contribution to the family but if you have a chef in your family and you’re having a party and ask them to cater…at least recognise that they do this for a living. Don’t be a cheapskate! They’ll still give you better rates than other caterers.

Do we sit and watch food shows all day on our off days? Nope. I personally can’t stand food shows unless they’re professional ones or involve a top chef traveling authentic places and sampling their cuisines. Otherwise shows like Masterchef and Ready, Steady, Cook I give a miss. I find myself nitpicking through all the small errors made by the presenter or contestants and then it just becomes work for me all over again. I won’t knock food shows though because without them interest in food wouldn’t be at the level that it is at right now. You can’t underestimate the power of someone having heard on TV that lamb should be served medium rare and not well done. Just having heard a TV show say it seems to make it official in people’s heads and if that’s the way food education has to be done, then I’m all for food shows. The more food savvy people are, the better the customer base and the more people are willing to pay for good food. I used to also enjoy watching Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows but lately I’ve found them a bit too overly dramatic.

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What’s our take on fast food and take out? We talk it down and knock it and rip it off and claim it’s crap in a box and that it isn’t real meat but from my experience, every chef I’ve ever worked with loved themselves some fast food now and then. We switch off our culinary brains and engage the instant gratification one very easily. After long hours the last thing you want to do is sit and analyse flavours and textures of food. Supersize mine thanks!

Last year I trended on twitter because of a series of posts I did about KFC and it’s chicken. I posted pics of a particular piece of KFC chicken which seemed to have deep fried brain in it. For all of 12 hours people stopped eating KFC…but days later were back there buying up grilled “chicken”. The power of big name fast food places is huge. No matter how many healthy food shows are done explaining fast food and what goes into it people will remain loyal to their brands. Chefs aren’t in the business of competing with fast food places. That’s their niche in the market and we have our own. What does bug me though is when fast food places refer to their line cooks as “chefs”. I often get asked by guests whether I can make fries like at McDonald’s or if I can replicate this or that burger they once tasted at a greasy diner. All part of the job.

Speaking of frequent questions. Another one I get quite a few times is to name all the famous people I have cooked for. Chefs always write a list of famous people on the resumes or CV’s because the world is run on celeb fart fumes. Whenever you see a chef bio or write-up in a magazine it doesn’t fail to mention who the chef has cooked for. Think about it though. Does it really make a difference who a chef has cooked for? I could very well make Barack Obama a peanut butter toasted sandwich and say I’ve cooked for Obama. I admit I do write down the names of all my clients and former guests but to be honest it really doesn’t make a difference. I could have fed Brad Pitt the worst bowl of soup in the world but still put it down as someone I have cooked for. My point? At some point every chef will cook for famous people, some more often than others. Due to where I work and the many types of places I have worked I’ve been “lucky” enough to cook for many famous people but I treat every plate of food I make the same, whether you looked at me funny or are the Queen herself.

You’re probably still thinking to yourself, “yes, blah blah blah so who have you cooked for?”. One day maybe I’ll write a blog post about them all and describe each celebs eating habits but for now let’s leave it at that.

One aspect of being a chef I always find funny is chefs who refuse to share recipes. There’s an old saying about chefs not sharing secreta but I don’t get it. Not every chef is going to write a cook book so why don’t they share their secrets then? I’ve asked many colleagues about it and none really have an answer that makes sense to me. Sharing one’s recipes does not mean your skill is also being given away. I could write you the best chocolate cake recipe in the world but you didn’t study the way I studied and the skills in every persons hands are different so the end result won’t be the same. It isn’t a competition. I was asked by someone once if I don’t feel nervous sharing all my recipes on a blog like this. I told them that it actually benefits me more as more people thank me for the things I’ve taught them and it builds up a loyal following and future client base. There are some tricks here and there that I’ve learnt over the years to do certain things but they aren’t chef secrets per se.

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What bugs chefs in the kitchen? Usually waiters. No one knows how to get under a chefs skin than a waiter. Be it through messed up orders or telling guests that they can order certain things that aren’t on the menu or by standing staring at you plating a dish from the other side of the pass. My biggest pet hate is when an order is written on the order slip and you get it done and then call for pick up and they give you that confused look whilst looking at the plate you just got ready and say “I’m sorry chef I meant…”. Argh! Dropped plates or food moving as the plate is carried away is another gripe. I’ve seen waiters being fired on the spot in some places by the exec chef just because of tardiness or writing orders wrong. Its samba on egg shells the relationship between waiters and chefs. I’ve worked as a waiter as part of my qualification and I respect the work they do and without them my work as a chef wouldn’t work efficiently but boy do they get on chefs nerves sometimes. The opposite can be true too sometimes. Whilst I was still a trainee chef I worked in a kitchen that had a chef brigade of about 25 chefs. The bulk of them were men. Put a bunch of sweaty, tired and tense men in a small space and introduce a dressed up, tight clothed and made up waitress to the fold and you a have a recipe for some interesting “conversations”. Let me just say construction workers have nothing on a brigade of chefs. Oh, and yes, chefs and waiters do talk about good looking guests or ladies who are dressed in a certain way. There are some code words used so you’ll never be the wiser.

There is many aspects and sides to the life of a chef and these are just some of them. As more come to mind (like conversations I’ve overheard whilst working at buffet tables or explaining what “Chef’s Ass” is) I’ll add them with time.

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