A Chef’s Journey: Life as a chef. Part 3

As I mentioned in part 1 of this trilogy of posts about being a chef, somehow the most hits I get on this site of mine are usually on these articles I write about being a chef. People are fascinated by the lives chefs lead. For some reason our career interests people and it’s something I have had to learn to get used to. I’m not someone who takes joy in talking about himself or his achievements but to make it in this cutthroat industry (ok, not quite cutthroat but I’ve always wanted to say that, “I work on a cutthroat industry”) I’ve come to learn that customers and guests aren’t only there to enjoy what you put on a plate, they are also interested in the story behind the hands that placed the beef fillet at an angle on their mushroom risotto. I’ve learned to tell my story and answer questions in such a way that it doesn’t brush people off but also doesn’t make me seem egotistical. We chefs love recognition, hence there being so many cook books, TV shows and chef competitions. What we do is an art but what I’ve come to realise over the years is that to get to the top tiers of the chef hierarchy you will eventually have to learn to be a salesman too. The quiet and reserved chefs do succeed eventually but at a much slower pace than a chef who makes sure their skills are always out there to be critiqued and admired. As I am on a mission to build a business I have had to learn the fine and intricate art of being a salesman too. Hence this blog and my various social media accounts.

Do chefs really swear like Gordon Ramsay? Haha. Yes and no. It depends on the environment and the establishment you are in. When I was working at The Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg an hour never went by without me hearing an array of various swearwords, mostly in isiZulu and English but now and then an Afrikaans swearword would sneak in too. A piece of steak wouldnt just be called a fillet but rather “this f**king piece of beef here”. People weren’t called by their first names or “chef”, which is the norm, but by some vulgar nickname. The kitchen was predominately male but even the few females who worked there were masters of the craft of cussing. In smaller kitchens the swearing tends not to be as hectic. The image Gordon Ramsay has created, I believe, is more for the cameras and hype. Yes we yell at each other at work and there are some classically trained old school chefs who still scream like that but the industry has moved on from that type of leadership in the kitchen. The head chef is God in the kitchen though, what they ask for is exactly what should be delivered. Trying to send out dish after dish of the highest standard and with minimal error…and ensuring each plate is hot, is stressful, add waiters messing up orders, and you have the perfect mix to getting the blood pressure of a head chef rising. We are perfectionists at heart and refuse to put our names on plates that aren’t perfect. After showing a junior chef how to make a certain dish a certain way and them not doing it that way during service does get to you. So back to the question. Do chefs swear like Ramsay? Most chefs I know have the ability to but no, we don’t push it to the limits that he does.

I was walking around the fruit and vegetable isle at the local supermarket a few days ago and giggled to myself remember how my dad would pick up watermelons whilst we were doing grocery shopping as kids and he would knock on the watermelon and put his ear to it and listen. I don’t know where he saw or got this idea from but he still does it to this day for some contrived reason. Do we chefs really sniff everything and bounce around the kitchen like we high on stuff? Yes, we do sniff things. No, not everything though. I don’t go around the veggie market leaning over and smelling every carrot and baby marrow I see. There are particular vegetables and herbs that requires one to actually smell to work out their freshness. I try not to do it a lot as one does get strange looks from passing shoppers but when I do decide to do it I sniff the fresh herbs, mushrooms, garlic, ginger, leafy vegetables and the ingredients I’ll be using for baking like cocoa and chocolate. In the kitchen itself we do it more often than not though, aromas are key to everything we do. People first eat with their eyes, hence our plating being so precise, then with their noses (even though you may do it unknowingly, when a plate of food is placed down in front of you your body leans forward slightly and you inhale it all in, next time you eat out, watch the other diners) and lastly you taste the food and eat with your mouth (duh). So when we sniff things we’re checking that the balance is right. Do we bounce around the kitchen all happy and giddy like those TV chefs? Haha. No we don’t. Thats all for the cameras.

Do we really shout “yes chef!” all night long? In large restaurants we do. In a small establishment it’s not necessary.¬†Shouting “yes chef” isn’t to boost the ego of the head chef, its a form of communication. He needs to know you’ve heard and confirmed the order he has just barked out. If you don’t respond and agree that you will do it he has to make a plan. The next orders or demands will not be called out until your respond with a “yes chef”. It may sound simple but when you’re busy with an order for 10 people and have listened to 4 more separate orders come in after that, shouting “yes chef” and not being 100% sure you can handle the order will get you in huge trouble. So the shouting also let’s the head chef know if you’re still good. The cardinal sin is when the head chef comes off the pass and has to physically come to you to see how far the order is. This is when the beautiful swearwords and flying pots I mentioned above will come out.

I hardly get asked over for dinner parties by friends. For some reason people think that because we cook for a living it means we’re forever critiquing people’s food. I’ve watched as people go silent and stop discussing plans for their next dinner party as I approach. We’re actually the complete opposite. The last thing we want to do is discuss food and judge home cooking. Well I personally, anyway. I love the art of food and talking about it at certain times but when it comes to just having a meal with friends I completely take off my chef hat and switch that part of my brain off. Chefs are humans at the end of the day too! The only person who doesn’t seem to care what I do for a living when they cook for me is my mom. Go figure.

With the rise of BBC Food, Taste channel and all these cooking shows the buzzword these days for anything and everything is that word “Michelin Star”. I hear many people tell me that they know a chef who once worked at a Michelin star establishment. Similar to that statement I made in part 2 of this blog, its the same as going on and on about having cooked for celebrities. In essence it doesn’t really mean you’re a good chef. Unless you were the head chef or exec chef, having worked d at a Michelin Star restaurant is awesome but in my view it doesn’t really sway me. So I’m sure you’re wondering, “had he worked at one?”. Yes, briefly. It honestly is just the same as any other kitchen. Yes sure there food is exceptional and has been verified as such by the reviewers and assessors of Michelin ratings but there are hundreds of equally good places around who don’t get rated. Ok, so what exactly is a Michelin Star and why does the European and American markets always go on about them? Back in the day when real salesmen actually conducted sales physically and not from a call centre in India, Michelin, the manufacturers of tyres, would send their salesman to every part of France initially and the rest of Europe. In order to assist each other on their travels, each Michelin salesperson would rate the various restaurants in the area they visited. These ratings were compiled just for Michelin itself to assist their staff but with time they grew a life of their own and became cherished acknowledgements for restaurants. Yes there is probably a lot more information and detail to the story but Google and Wikipedia will do that for you if you’d like more details. There are 3 ratings. 1, 2 and 3 stars. 1 being the lowest Michelin star you get and 3 being the best. Just earning one star is a huge feat. Places that have 3 stars are truly on another level. Every year the restaurants are re-assessed and it’s determined if the grading is still consistent or not. It takes a whole lot to get a star. Its not just the quality of food. Your service, staff and entire establishment is assessed. In South Africa we don’t have a grading system but our restaurants are on par with the European ones in my view. Our problem is guests in SA don’t want to pay the type of prices European guests are willing to part with for top food. This filters down to the ingredients as we can’t use the expensive ingredients top places use overseas. We also can’t afford to make use of all the gadgets and toys we’d like to (if I won the lotto I would buy so many things from El Bulli. I love molecular gastronomy). We make do with what we have down here, it tends to lead one to become a more diverse and creative chef, which is a positive.

What do chefs think of canned goods? Well, at chef school we were banned from even touching them. That’s how badly they are frowned upon. To be honest though, with time I’ve given certain canned goods a chance. I obviously am anti canned veggies or sauces but I do use canned chickpeas at times. Coconut milk and cream as well. Basically the ingredients that aren’t easily accessible and can’t be made in the kitchen easily. There’s a certain taste to canned products I don’t like and they are ALWAYS overcooked before you even use them.

What about salting my food after I’ve sent to you? I personally don’t judge people who do this. Tastes buds are unique to every person. There are chefs who take it personally when a guests adds condiments and salt to their food. I don’t understand why they get upset. Oh, that leads me that other question: Do chefs really despise ketchup? Yes. In a fine dining restaurant you won’t find it anywhere.

There’s a term I was taught by my hot kitchen lecturer. It welcomed me to the madness that was the chef world I was about to join. He called it “CA” and would go on and on about having just recovered from a bout of CA. Being students, we didn’t want to be the first to ask him what he was on about, so we all just nodded and gave him our sympathies and congratulations for recovering. Later on, whilst having one of those strange moments in the kitchen, which happens more times than not, he sat us down and explained what CA was. The letters CA stand for “Chef’s Ass”, a term lovingly used in the industry to describe a horrible situation in the rear end of a chef. We work in a very hot environment for ping hours at a time. As you know the human body is designed to sweat in such environments. As the sweat trickles down the small of your back, with time it tend so collect at the top of your butt and trickle down in between your legs. With movement and as you walk the sweat and moisture causes rashes in the crack area. Yes, I kid you not, this was his explanation. Remember, chefs are not normal folk. The rash eventually causes chaffing and rawness. So as a solution apparently chefs would pour corn starch down the pants to absorb the moisture and to provide some relief. Well, we all know what happens to corn starch after it gets in contact with moisture…it begins to cake. Haha. So the chef would walk around like a cowboy avoiding walking properly in fear of causing more chaffing. CA. Chef’s Ass.

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