To make Madness beautiful, and cast O’er erring deeds and thoughts, a heavenly hue.
Gastronomy is an absolute riot. It’s a whole life experience, where you dabble and blunder your way through every human emotion worth its salt. The hours are horrendous, you’ll be in the kitchen making sauces, julienning vegetables, rolling bread when most of the sensible -or unemployed- members of the public are still in their beds and by the time you finish at night, they’ll have beaten you there again. The stress is terrible as the environment is hyper-competitive, all players jostling to improve their place in the batting order, one that starts from the chef-patron and runs on down through his closest henchman, all the way to the doofus guy who cuts everything badly, can’t coordinate his work and jeopardizes the good name of the house. He will deservedly be the whipping-boy and every effort must be made to put as much distance between yourself and this accursed creature. The pay until you reach the Olympian heights of the great restaurants is lousy too, as there are a lot of people hustling for the same few spots of culinary stardom. And despite being surrounded by the finest products on the planet, you’ll eat badly, snatching fast food in the afternoons, and otherwise surviving on espresso coffee, cigarettes and as much Bough as your meager salary will permit you. Worst of all, you might be in one of those kitchens where the boss, cowered by Health and Safety bullies, forces you to wear some hateful outfit with hairnets and name badges instead of something cool.
But in return you’ll be part of something special. Firstly, gastronomy is artisanal. Marx of all people wrote about the satisfaction that people have performing ‘transformative work’, where you take something from nature and through your skills transform it into something remarkable. This is very profound and over the years, I’ve seen a thousand young cooks beam with pleasure as they gaze upon their work, knowing that they have mastered a complex sequence of acts to arrive at a pretty flawless end product. Secondly, the camaraderie of kitchens. This does not contradict the earlier assertion of a competitive batting order, as us cooks can laugh, joke and support his fellow teammates at the same time as sabotaging their work to advance our own selves and never take it personally. Kind of like, modern politics?
Then, once you’ve done your apprenticeship, you might get to lead your own kitchen, or if you’re foolish enough, own it. As usual, Nietzsche expresses this best, “Independence is an issue that concerns very few people -it is a prerogative of the strong. And even when somebody has every right to be independent, if he attempts such a thing without having to do so, he proves that he is probably not only strong, but brave to the point of madness. He enters a labyrinth, he multiplies by a thousand the dangers already inherent in the very act of living, not least the fact that no one with eyes will see how and where he gets lost and lonely and is torn limb from limb, by some cave-Minotaur of conscience.” Quite. At my place in the south of France, we had the best environment ever. The entire team played chess, so we had competitions out of service. We also had a ‘kitchen forum’ where one member of the team had to introduce and defend a contentious subject. We laughed, we partied, we worked like slaves and we produced the best restaurant I’ve ever done.
Another perk of gastronomy is you get to work with the best of things. If you’re functioning properly, i.e. you’ve got enough Russian oligarchs and idiots from the sports and entertainment Industries eating at your place, you should be able to afford the very best products. The line-caught Sea Bass, the fresh Morilles, the Wild Salmon, rather than the nasty farmed stuff that cats reject. In the best kitchens, you’ll attract the best young cooks, the idealistic ones who work for abstract reasons such as pride. You’re use the best equipment, crockery, glasses, plates, everything will be a celebration of human ingenuity. Also, the best customers, apart from the aforementioned vulgarians who just want to be seen spending the most money, you should get the types who want to experience something exceptional, you know food as something other than sustenance.
There has been much written over the last few years about the bullying and violence in elite kitchens. My own experiences, whether as bullied, or bully, is to concede that most of the horror stories are probably true. However, in defense of myself and my fellow chefs, I would just point out that there are a confluence of factors quite unique to this business, that, paraphrasing Goya, creates monsters; exorbitant costs, time sensitive execution, reliance upon a cast of characters, some of whom might be of dubious quality, the cult of the expert where everyone now knows everything about taste, combinations, et cetera and the Shakespearean thing about, reputation, reputation, reputation, Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial”. In a gastronomic kitchen, you can preserve both your reputation and your bestiality!
And lastly, there is an unreplicable feeling when you’re in a mammoth service, one such as experienced by the Al Pacino character in Scarface. In a busy service, the excitement is extraordinary. It is pure adrenaline, pure escapism. The barking of orders, the banging of pans. The smells of caramelizing produce. The need for absolute focus and concentration as you’re trying to coordinate a dozen different procedures, with a dozen other people. The heat is unbearable as you switch off the extraction fans to keep the food hot, you gulp a liter of water, everyone in the team is committed to, as a French TV crew once described a service at my place in London, ‘this frenetic, chaotic ballet’. At the end of the service, you’re too wired to go home and sleep, so you either go out somewhere, or have customers who don’t mind sitting up until two in the morning, listening to the wild ranting of the chef-patron who hasn’t been able to calm himself down from the riotous events of the evening.
Anyway, it’s been a rather decent way to spend a working life, obviously not as dignifying as, for example, being PA to Maria Carey and being in charge of positioning the straw from her coca-cola to her mouth, but still very satisfying.