First, an uncomfortable truth- the highest aspiration of most modern chefs is to leave the craft of cooking behind. Why?
Each day in America legions of working-class citizens wake up and aspire to a new job, a better career, to transition from an industry where the physical labor, or the monotony, or the unpleasant aspects of their daily job do not fulfill them. Someone who hauls trash for a living may not want to wake up every day and haul trash until retirement; however they do not tell everyone, vocally and without any hesitancy, that they love their job.
There is only one workplace where that is the case- the professional kitchen.
The life of a cook is one of incredible difficulty and adversity, and one that has precious few exits. Line cooks, even those working in the upper echelons of food service, work incredible hours for an median of $22,600 a year.
There is no retirement package, no pension- just work until the body is no longer able to bear the incredible physical strain of cooking for 12 hours every day. The end game is to change industries, or ‘graduate’ to being an owner of a restaurant. The industry that employs 7.5% of all Americans is one where the summit of success is leaving the job behind.
This is not the case in other times and other cultures- across most of Europe, the role of a chef is designed as a career with a graceful arc from young “stagaire” through to grey-haired culinary sensei. The giants of the past were not looking to own restaurants, but were focused instead on their role of leading a brigade of cooks into service every evening, supported by a class of restaurant owner who were dedicated to supporting excellence in the kitchen. Reading letters and correspondence between Auguste Escoffier(1846–1935) and the heads of the various establishments he cooked in, the tone suggests a relationship familiar to anyone from the art world- that of a benefactor.
Escoffier was regarded as a craftsman and artist of the highest caliber, and the owners who supported him treated him as such through his long career.
Escoffier created the modern kitchen organization, and wrote an exceedinglyinfluential text on kitchens; one part recipe book, one part thesis on culinary organization. His ennoblement of cooking from a servant’s labor to a profession created modern foodservice; however in recent years the rise of a new kind of chef has effectively unseated that tradition.
Nouvelle Cuisine ushered in a new wave of chefs across France and the nascent American culinary scene- exemplified by the brothers Troisgros(1928-present), owner operators of a humble restaurant outside Lyons, which was elevated to a 3 star establishment based on a singular vision of clean, simple, refined and fresh food.
Jean & Pierre Troisgros
Nouvelle Cuisine is talked about mostly in the context of the changes to cuisine itself, but the largest and most lasting influences were in fact driven by the fact that the true pioneers in this movement invariably owned the restaurants that dared to break from Escoffier’s tradition. The creation of a new kind of cuisine was made possible by the fact that chefs in these establishments had more control over what they could do, because the risk was theirs to take. Doing the predictable food in the traditional manner was the safe bet- these entrepreneurs did something different because they were capable of innovation, capable of risk.
The Troisgros brothers were also famous for being in their restaurant, every night, sweating beside their team, making incredible food. The ability to take risks and break from tradition did not exempt them from their devotion to excellence or their desire to cook perfect food every night.
The elevation of a chef to the role of owner marked the beginning of a period of flux for the career trajectory of chefs- suddenly, one did not have to wait in line for the chance to become Chef- one could seize the crown and become one through an entrepreneurial leap.
Marco Pierre White (1961-present) exemplifies these two different paths to chef-dom. A household name in Britain, MPW is not as known in North America, despite the book “White Heat” having been responsible for creating a whole generation of cooks.
White heat was the first chef biography, and it established an identity for chefs across the industry, virtually overnight. Anthony Bourdain, alongside many others, has written about the effect the book had on his evolution as a young cook-
‘I don’t know if I can adequately convey to you the impact that White Heat had on me, on the chefs and cooks around me, on subsequent generations.
Suddenly, there was life preMarco, and postMarco. This book, around which we’d gathered in a prep area, opening it carefully on a cutting board and examining it, changed everything.’
Marco Pierre White had seen through Escoffier’s vision of orderly brigades of professionals and underneath, he’d seen and called out the misery and bleakness of the industry. He says-
‘Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar. At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank…If you’ve got no money you can’t do anything; you’re a prisoner of society. At the end of the day it’s just another job. It’s all sweat and toil and dirt: it’s misery.’
MPW saw things for what they really are, even as he rocketed to the top of the culinary world by the time he was 30. The photos of him in White Heat, a 3 star chef, top of his profession, preceded by mere moments his decision to hang up his apron and quit.
MPW made the modern chef image, and then departed to be something other than a chef- a brand, a name, a business. He created an empire (successful or not) that spanned television, endorsements, restaurants, pubs and ventures across the globe. He made himself into something more than a chef, and did not look back.
Marco Pierre White was the first among many to aspire not to the top of the profession, but beyond it.
Culinary school students have changed.
Marco Pierre White himself has some opinions on the matter; he says
“What White Heat did was bring the middle and upper classes and the aristocrats into the kitchen… Before it was a blue-collar trade. Today, across London, how many kids who went to a nice public school work in kitchens?”
The definition of who wants to be a chef has changed dramatically, even as the trajectory of the profession has not. These two forces are on a collision course, right now inside of the restaurant industry.
On one side, you have the grim reality of the kitchen- chefs get old: they wear out: and they aspire to become owners.
On the other side, a generation of cooks between 21 and 41 who have the desire to follow in the footsteps of past chefs and graduate out of the kitchen and into something grander and more influential. Sadly, the chances that these smart capable and influential young cooks of making it to the top of the profession approaches zero. The odds of running an empire across multiple businesses and becoming a household name approaches the success rates of two other notorious sectors- Hollywood, and professional sports.
Almost every chef aspires to something greater, and will not keep their head down and cook when the future is so bleak and uncertain. The next rebellion is at hand.
Enter the New Food Business.
The model of the restaurant, the brigade of cooks united to serve a public yearning for culinary excellence, is being overturned. This very generation of cooks and chefs, emerging from the world that Marco Pierre White created, are starting to rebel against that model and create things that do not conform to this old model. They are, in short, finding new options and new definitions for what it means to be a chef.
Throw away the dining room? Connect people with food that they want on demand, through their phone? Sprig, founded by a chef.
Put the kitchen on wheels? Food trucks have exploded across North America as chefs realize that the upfront costs of that lease and equipment can be left for the less ambitious.
Innovate on the nature of ingredients? Chef Chris Jones left Moto in Chicago to join Hampton Creek, arguably the most important food+tech startup today.
Remake the model of a restaurant? Who knows what René Redzepi is doing right now, but it’s the most exciting thing happening in the highest echelons of restaurants.
Start a revolution? Love him or hate him, Jamie Oliver is a force to be reckoned with. He took a big stand on the lunches of America, until his show was cancelled and replaced with re-runs of Dancing With The Stars. Actually.
Remake the Chef, Remake the Food System
Chefs are leaders in the food world- their influence defines both the culture and palate of food. Food is evolving faster than ever today, but the role of the chef is the largest “unknowable” in the direction and speed of that evolution.
There is a great urgency in tackling this one pivotal problem: how do we create opportunities for a hundred thousand passionate, eager, educated and ambitious cooks and chefs? How can we channel this coming wave of chef rebellions into something that creates opportunity for them and positive change in the food we eat?
How can we change the narrative around culinary success, so that it means something more than just the attainment of a Michelin star, or getting to be a brand advocate for Knox Bullion Cubes? How do we create real, concrete opportunities for the mass of talent making less than 30k a year in restaurant kitchens coast to coast?
Aspirations of a new generation
Escoffier’s revolution gave form to the kitchen, Troisgros gave a path to creative freedom and expression, Marco Pierre White gave a creed and identity to the industry.
Going forward, we must challenge the narrow definition of “chef” and come to understand this profession in a different light; a scope that will now define our relationship with food as it defines our health, our culture, our history and our values.
We must be fed; just as we need carpenters to house us and doctors to cure us, we need cooks to sustain us. The title that concerns me is Chef, and how as we move through this next revolution in cooking we must find new meanings for this old word.
For us to eat better food, and for those millions of aspirant cooks coming up through the ranks to live better lives, we must make this title something to aspire to and not to rush past. Chefs are important, and we have a unique moment today when we all get to decide why.