When people ask me how I became a chef I think there’s usually (at least) a mild expectation to get some kind of romantic, humorous, possibly depraved, starving artist-type tale. Or something. Obviously I have a personal story but there’s no real . . . climax; I just ended up cooking more than I did anything else. Save any job security and/or health insurance, high-octane kitchens are also a decent fit for snarky A-types, and—often enough—an employment bastion for those with advanced humanities degrees. Suffice it to say the marketability of my religious studies degree was constant encouragement to keep cooking for a time. Then it became second nature, and now I just cook because I cook. I’m aware that I have the faculties to do a number of things, but cooking makes me feel good. So I keep doing it.
I don’t think about what I do as “being a chef”, however. To me that always refers to the person in charge of a restaurant. Closer to the truth, I design and produce experience with food, much like a playwright crafts their show. There’s a point to it, it isn’t mindless. And it’s endlessly fascinating to me to see that if the context of the experience changes (i.e., the type of event, or time of day) the experience of the food changes as a result. It’s humbling, beautiful, and puts the pressure on. No one likes crappy food, especially if they’re paying to have you make it for them or putting your name on their cookbook.
To sum up: It’s a HUGE deal to cook for someone and that’s why I place a high value on cooking. It’s high pressure, intimate, personal, and the risk-reward is really high; as happy as people are when they’re eating great food, they’re bummed when it’s not up to their expectations. And that’s my job—meet and exceed my clients’ expectations.
I think that as soon as cooking isn’t about service, it’s just arbitrary, ephemeral art, like a play performed in an empty theater. Interesting, perhaps, but never great.