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Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse, Nancy Silverton, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, and dozens of other leading chefs reveal their most significant influences - including childhood memories, formal apprenticeships, world travel, memorable meals, and beloved books - and share their secrets for staying on top. From Mario Batali's thoughts on how to open a restaurant with less than $50,000 to guidance from Gina DePalma, Emily Luchetti, and Amy Scherber on becoming a baker or pastry chef, Becoming a Chef is filled with candid advice and thought-provoking insights for any food lover interested in the secrets of running a successful restaurant or creating inspired cuisine at home.
Equal parts instruction and inspiration, this book chronicles culinary career options and opportunities and includes fascinating anecdotes from leading American chefs on their first jobs, mentors, successes, and setbacks.
CHEFS Yesterday and Today.
EARLY INFLUENCES Discovering a Passion for Food.
COOKING SCHOOLS Learning in the Classroom.
APPRENTICING Learning in the Kitchen.
GETTING IN Starting at the Bottom.
DEVELOPING AS A COOK The Next Level.
THE BUSINESS OF COOKING Operting and Running a Restaurant.
TRAVEL, EATING, AND READING Learning Something New Every Day.
PERSEVERING IN THE FACE OF REALITY Through Bad Times and Good.
WHAT'S NEXT? The Chef as Alchemist.
APPENDIX A: Glossary of Restaurant and Kitchen Terms.
APPENDIX B: Selected Professional Cooking Schools in the United States and Abroad.
APPENDIX C: Leading Culinary Organizations.
APPENDIX D: Leading Culinary Periodicals.
APPENDIX E: Brief Biographies of Chefs Interviewed.
Chef-restaurateur Jimmy Schmidt's life is not atypical of the lives of top American chefs like him who alternately wear the hats of chef, owner, host, author, writer, activist, and sometimes even celebrity. Schmidt runs five successful restaurants—the first and most famous being The Rattlesnake Club—in the Detroit area, but he crisscrosses the country to participate in various benefits with other chefs. He's active in leading the Chefs Collaborative 2000,a not-for-profit organization of chefs concerned about the quality of food in America. Before he goes to sleep at night, the author of the cookbook Cooking for All Seasons and nationally syndicated columnist uses the quiet time of the late hour to read and write. And, somehow, he—like many of his fellow chefs—usually manages to get by on just four or five hours of sleep a night.
Before reaching this level of success, however, working cooks like me experience "rites of passage" not unlike those one might encounter in boot camp. Our hours are long, the work is physically demanding, and the conditions are, well, hot. Our "uniforms" are anything but—while most kitchens require cooks to wear the traditional white chef's jacket, these days the pants worn could be anything from the traditional black-and-white houndstooth check to a brightly colored print of red chile peppers. Headgear ranges from a traditional toque (the classic tall white hat) to a baseball cap. Footwear might be tennis shoes or clogs, which are particularly popular among cooks who've worked in French kitchens. Kitchen work during lunch or dinner service is always intense, but the atmosphere may range from a tense calm to loud and frenzied screaming and yelling.
Those able to stand the heat are finding that the growth of the foodservice industry today is opening up greater opportunities for cooks and chefs in the profession. These opportunities carry with them an important responsibility, as the choices made by the next generation of chefs will transform the food of tomorrow. I believe aspiring chefs should recognize this influence and use it responsibly, striving to master their profession. This process starts with an understanding of its history.
Why is it important to understand culinary history? It is the rich tradition of the culinary field that allows this profession to be so much more than standing at a cutting board or a hot stove all day. I have worked with fellow cooks who didn't understand my own interest in the subject. They would ask, "Who cares who James Beard or Escoffier were? Why should I care what anyone did 20 years ago, let alone 200 years ago? I'd rather hear about what's new."
In fact, the media's emphasis on the latest culinary trends adds to the pressure chefs feel to come out with something new and different to attract attention, to define their style, or to satisfy our American desire for innovation. However, how much is ever truly new? André Soltner provides an interesting perspective of history's importance: "We've had the same food for 200-300 years—everything we do today was already done before." Could he possibly be right? Think about the wide variety of ethnic and regional cuisines we eat today, the modern demands for convenience and sophistication placed on today's cook, and our concerns about healthful food. Consider these cooking magazine articles: "Foods of the Rio Grande Valley and Northern Mexico," "Italian Cooking," "Russian Recipes," "Fifteen-Minute Meals," "Lentils: A Meat Substitute," "When Unexpected Company Comes," "World-Famous Recipes by the World's Most Noted Chefs," "Creole Cooking," "Delicious Cooking in a Small Space," "Making Gnocchi," "Homemade Timbales," "Making and Serving Curry." Could such variety and such specific needs even have been imagined more than a few years ago? Well, yes. Each article listed appeared in a United States publication between the years of 1895 and 1910!
In addition, how many people are aware that architecturally structured food, covered extensively in the food press in the 1990s as a "new" trend toward "tall" food, was prepared by chefs in the 19th century? As one might imagine, the chefs who pushed food in new directions were real pioneers in their day and thus, not surprisingly, fascinating human beings. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "There is properly no history; only biography." History is simply compelling stories about compelling people, and the people who played a role in culinary history particularly so.
Until recently, the chef's profession was not particularly prestigious. Only in the last 20-25 years have chefs begun to gain the respect and recognition they deserve. Much of the media coverage today stems from their participation in various high-profile charity benefits. But turn to history and you'll see that chefs have long contributed to their communities through food. One example described in the pages that follow includes a chef who fed more than a million people over three months during the Irish potato famine.
As a not-unimportant bonus, an historical perspective allows cooks to give their food greater depth. At the School for American Chefs, Madeleine Kamman would have us think about where and when a dish originated and what the local people might have used to season it in centuries past. In preparing a particular Mediterranean dish, we saw the value of that thinking when we substituted anchovy for salt, and the dish took on a deeper richness and complexity. Understanding the profession's history will make you a better cook—in more ways than one.
Today's cook has a rich and impressive lineage dating back thousands of years, and understanding one's place as a link in a chain tot he past—as well as to the future—can help a cook see the profession in a more balanced perspective. The timeline that follows doesn't pretend to be comprehensive—it merely highlights some interesting people, books, and events we hoped might help stimulate the reader's appetite to learn more and feel a stronger connection to the past.
You would not be holding this book in your hands if there wasn't something about the idea of cooking that strikes a chord within you. What is the origin of that chord, of that instinctive urge to work with food? Are chefs born or made?
Some chefs are convinced that great chefs are born with that potential. Alice Waters believes, "Most of it's in the genes. The really good cooks seem to just have a natural ability. They don't exactly learn it—it's just in them." Susanna Foo has found that, "A good chef is born with a good palate, just as a good musician is born with good ears."
Other chefs feel that all influences are important. Jean-Louis Palladin feels lucky to have had a Spanish mother and an Italian father. "All that genetic influence was put together in my subconscious." On the other hand, he credits external influences, too, particularly his childhood in the south of France. Almost all of the chefs we interviewed brought up transformational events in their early lives which elevated food to a special level of importance.
This comes as no surprise to Mark Miller, a former college instructor, who says, "Children reach consciousness between the ages of five and seven. Basic personality, taste, and aesthetic ability are formed that early. So it is very important to have a multitude of culinary experiences at an early age. I had those—I was lucky." Lydia Shire agrees, and counts herself as fortunate for having artists as parents, whom she credits with teaching her about aesthetics and design. Shire says, "To be good in this profession, you need to have something really special working for you. It could be how you were reared as a child, what your parents did, what kind of values they instilled in you. Some of this has to start when you're young." Jasper White is even more specific. "Most of the really good chefs that I've met have a connection that started in the embryonic stage," he says. "It has to be instilled—a love for food comes from your family."
In sharing the backgrounds of leading chefs, our purpose is to show that passion and greatness have a variety of origins. While some few were fortunate enough to have eaten in some of the world's finest restaurants as children, others were raised on good (and sometimes even bad) home cooking. The important thing was not always the food itself, but the meaning which was attached to it. "Even eating a hot dog can be a peak experience," points out Chris Schlesinger. Certainly, these chef's early lives were filled with a wide variety of peak food experiences.
There is no single, straight and narrow path to becoming a chef and perhaps more than anything, the diversity of the lives of the chefs we interviewed illustrates this fact. The key that unites leading chefs is merely the fact that they absorbed and used what they learned about food, wherever they learned it—cooking at home, learning from relatives or neighbors, growing upon a farm, eating out in restaurants, being raised in a restaurant family, even watching cooking shows on TV.
Early influences establish an encyclopedia of tastes and ideas that becomes a foundation for future work. For example, cooking with raspberries recalls every experience a chef has ever had with a raspberry which has been recorded in his or her memory bank. While other influences may shape and update a particular dish, the influence of the original raspberry is still there. Your own food history and food memory indirectly shapes every dish you produce. It's important to be in touch with those memories and to understand how they are shaping the way you cook. Being in touch with the experiences involving food that made food important to you at a young age provides a context for all the ideas about food you will have later. While it's easy to overanalyze food, your experiences bring food back to a personal level, which helps takes your cooking beyond rote. It's also useful to be able to tap positive food memories, as your pleasurable associations with food are what can keep you going when long hours of hard work challenge your dedication.
I still remember weekends spent harvesting walnuts form the four walnut trees at home. Dad would use a pole to knock the nuts off the trees and at the age of six, I would run around with a bucket, gathering them up. We'd pour them by the bucketful into burlap sacks, which we'd store in the cellar. The ones we cracked and ate on the spot weren't anything like the dried walnuts they'd become months later, which were slightly bitter. The fresh ones were sweet and moist, with a thin, tan skin. Even now, I particularly enjoy cooking with walnuts. This is not only because when they're featured on the menu it means they're around for me to snack on in the kitchen, but because my greater knowledge of ingredients and techniques now helps me to be able to use their flavor and texture.