As I was cooking breakfast, I was reflecting on everything I’d learned while being a professional. Though I feel I can’t return to the kitchen, I do feel it is part of my soul. My last gig convinced me (though not a unique experience, by far) I have the heart of a chef, but my body just won’t cooperate. I do not mean that I have earned my stripes to be a chef already (which literally means boss, and too many people call everyone who cooks “chef”), I mean that if I didn’t have so many physical limitations, I would have bagged all my other ambitions and gotten the experience I needed to run my own kitchen.
It’s not just the work that calls to me, it’s the lifestyle. I would finish in the kitchen around 11, then come home and write late into the night. I’d sleep until noon or one, then do it all over again. It fits my circadian rhythm perfectly, because truly working overnight just about killed me (I once worked at an IT help desk with customers in the UK, so we were open 24/7). I was fine until about 0400, but even if I napped my entire lunch hour, staying until 0800 made my body scream for mercy.
What made cooking different is that it never drained me. It gave me energy rather than taking it. Putting the perfect plate of food in the window to give to a customer always made me smile inside, and it showed. My coworkers literally compared me to SpongeBob Squarepants…. and I’ve worked in three different pubs, so the comparison is not unfair……
But my chef’s heart didn’t start beating until I got some menu control over the brunch program at the first one, and then did Cajun fine dining for a while, where I worked with higher caliber ingredients and people (in the professional sense- everyone has personally been fine). At Tapalaya, both the chef and the sous had been to culinary school, and were impeccable about teaching everyone else.
In terms of what my chefs made me, it is that I wouldn’t even be the same person today….. and also jambalaya, which Chef would present me at the end of a long shift with an Abita Purple Haze. He found out on the first day that I liked it, and the moment the restaurant closed, one would magically appear. It was just one of the ways that Chef showed me he cared, both as a boss and a friend (we were friends before I worked for him and still friends today). There’s also one moment between us that will seem so small that it is insignificant, but even thinking about it makes tears come to my eyes.
Working in the kitchen is a meritocracy. You start at rock bottom and work your way up, even if you’ve been to culinary school. If you have been to culinary school and think certain jobs are beneath you, it is literally the quickest way to get fired. The moment I’m recalling is that Chef asked me to taste something and tell him what it needed. I took a bite and closed my eyes. “Salt. It needs a little more salt.” He dropped some in. No big deal, right?
It was everything. Absolutely everything. It was the first time in any kitchen that I’d won enough merit to have an opinion, like getting into a doctoral program, because that’s generally when you’re allowed to think for yourself (in publishing, anyway). And if you ask Chef, he’d tell you that you were right. It was no big deal.
Yes, it was. It was the moment I realized I was really good at my job. Where the problems start happening is technique, never palate. With enough time, I can do anything, and in a professional kitchen, it’s the only thing that’s never on the menu.
I’d worked with my ex-wife, Dana, and she allowed me to have plenty of opinions, but never because she was compelled. At work, I deferred to her judgment, because she had been to culinary school and I hadn’t. It was that she had seen me cook for years, both at home and at work, and trusted me. Our joke was that with my palate and her technique, between us we had a complete culinary education.
For instance, she would often start a soup and then come to me and say, “fix this.” And it wasn’t that it didn’t taste good originally. She just knew I would “put it up to 11.” Those moments were fantastic, but I can’t put them on the same level with Chef. It’s not that I respected Dana less, it’s that she was my family, someone I didn’t see as having as much objectivity as someone unrelated…. like not believing I was actually a good singer until I was well-received by people other than my mom. Everybody’s mom thinks they’re a good singer. Everybody’s spouse thinks they’re a good cook if they think they’ll be sleeping in the backyard if they don’t. 😛
I made the connection early on that cooking was like driving a car with a manual transmission, and that analogy carries me, because it applies to nearly everything.
For instance, let’s start with mayonnaise. You put three egg yolks and one tablespoon of acid into a bowl (doesn’t matter if it’s citrus or vinegar), and then whisk it until it turns white (called the sabayon stage). After that, it is like the balance between the clutch and the gas, the egg and vinegar mixture vs. the oil….. the stallout being the sauce breaking (that means that the acid and oil have separated). Usually, this is caused by adding too much oil at one time. Three egg yolks and one tablespoon of acid will stretch to accommodate quite a bit, but it has to be added at a drizzle while you’re whisking like mad. Sometimes you can save it by continually whisking and adding a tiny bit of water, but most of the time, you’ll have to get the starter to turn over……………..
[As an aside, if you’re a home cook, you should really learn to make mayonnaise, because it’s the basis of every salad dressing ever. If it’s ranch or bleu cheese, mayonnaise is the base. If it’s a vinaigrette, there’s no mayonnaise, but the concept of balance between acid and oil is the same. Also, at home there’s no chef barking at you that you’re cheating if you use a mixer or a blender so you have a free hand to hold the oil steady. You can also make Hollandaise quite easily, extrapolating the concept by using melted butter instead of oil and lemon juice for the acid.]
The same stick shift analogy can be used with other balances, like adding an acid if something is too salty, or adding more sugar/fat if something is too spicy.
Once I learned the concepts behind palate, it didn’t matter what type of cuisine, down to the dish, that I was making.