He stood there waiting for a response. His name was John with a C (Cann). His name is fairly difficult to pronounce in English so it just made it simple for us. He was a Turkish student at CIA and was serving his externship in the kitchen at Del Posto where I was a cook. He was a nice kid who worked hard and tried hard. I was focused on prep.
I heard him clearly but he was talking to somebody else. “Chef, can you help me with this?” As I continued my work I suddenly realized that we were alone and he was talking to me.
In kitchens the word “chef” is a common term. It is a courtesy to refer to your fellow cooks as “Chef”, the only correct answer to any question is “Yes, Chef”, your confirmation of understanding direction is also “Yes, Chef”. I had been called Chef literally thousands of time by this point, a year into my training, but this was different. I had just been addressed as a teacher.
For the past year I had peeked over shoulders, stayed late, come in early, badgered every sous chef or higher that crossed my path and basically been an annoying little shit so that I could soak up every tiny morsel of information possible. It was and is a thirst that I can’t quench. I bought books that aNew York City line cook can’t afford and I read them cover to cover, then I took them apart and took notes, then I read them again. On my days off I worked in any kitchen that would take me for free. Though every once in a while my body disagreed, the 12 and 14 hour days went by too fast, I didn’t want to go home, though I am sure that the cooks undergoing my inquisition were ecstatic when my day ended. When you get one answer it raises 10 new questions. Though it sounds extreme, that”s what it takes to be a cook and I am not unusual.
My goal of course was to one day be a chef, a designation that, other than husband and father, I revere above all others. It is also a title that far too many people use in a flippant disrespectful way. True chefs have dedicated real blood, sweat and tears for many years. They have suffered and sacrificed, as have their families. Cooks in great kitchens are paying tuition to go to work. We work for very little money so that we can learn from the greats. It is an investment, and regardless of your career progress, if you work hard, pay attention and always demand more of yourself than you think you can give, you will have invaluable returns. Feeding people is primal. Being the provider of sustenance reveals an instinctive pride in me. Everyone eats every day. If I can develop the skill to make a mundane obligatory activity enjoyable, I have done my job. If I can make it memorable, I am happy.
My immediate overwhelming instinct at that moment was, “I am not a chef yet”. I tried with everything I had not to smile as I turned and answered him. He bobbled away to gather mise en place I had sent him for. As soon as his head was turned I began to glow. I was so proud of myself that another cook, no matter how new, had seen my work and thought that I could teach him. The only thing that didn’t land was that word. I have so far to go. Even in the room I am in I have two truly gifted men that inspire me with their skill and knowledge. What keeps me alive in the kitchen is the quest for information and chasing that perfection that we all know is unattainable.
I am not a chef yet and if being a chef means that you have learned it all, I don’t want to be. I am thankful that I have been fortunate enough to work for men that grow and learn everyday and give me hope that that is not the case.