I recently had an interesting conversation with a former co-worker of mine about his hang-ups over using the word “Chef.”
“I used to hate calling people ‘Chef’. It’s something that has a very distinct meaning, but people use it for anybody these days. Any goddamn person who is cooking is a ‘Chef’.”
I think we were drinking at the time, so imagine that we both paused here to take a swig.
“*glug* So, do you still feel that way?” I asked.
“I think I’m over it for the most part, but it’s still frustrating. Restaurants run so differently, and sometimes it’s not appropriate at all, and other times you get in trouble if you don’t. And it rarely means anything. It’s just hard figuring out the times you’re supposed to say it, versus when people are just saying it.”
“I see that,” I answered, And letting the beer hit me a bit, “so it’s kind of like figuring out whether or not to say you love somebody?”
There’s a lot of different meanings of the word Chef, and a lot of people are feeling awkward and angry about it.
There’s a lot of different meanings of the word Love, and I don’t know what I could possibly link to here. Hopefully you just agree with me.
At the restaurant where he and I worked together, calling any one of our string of bosses a “Chef” would have sounded like a light jab; it would a big sarcastic italics descending upon whatever sentence we just said. A sort of snarky, “you’re taking your job too seriously and being really bossy about it.” I.e. “Yes, I’ll grab the lettuce right away, Chef.”
The other day I was having a similar conversation with a new co-worker about using the word “Chef.” At this new restaurant, there are definitely chefs. People are definitely calling particular presences in the kitchen “chefs,” and that person fulfills that role of “Chef,” and the line of chefdom starts and stops inside their personhood.
“But sometimes, it kinda bothers me,” he said, “and I don’t really want to call such and such a person ‘Chef.’ I used to joke around and call them ‘coach.’ That made me feel better.”
Hearing that made me feel hilarious.
Why does it bother people? Why is it so confusing? Why is the term chef being used so widely? Keep on reading for zero answers.
Before I started culinary school, if someone asked me, “What’s a word you find too confusing to use appropriately?. Or,” What’s the word you nervously tip-toe around, and hope that nobody notices you standing in the room, not using the word you’re supposed to be using?”
“Love. Big, fat Love.”
But a year later, after being water-boarded by the greater world of cooking, I’d change my answer to:
“Chef, but also, probably, still Love.”
I think my discomfort regarding those two words is actually stemming from exactly the same place.
1. Both words have been programmed into me, albeit from different parts of society. Love, with religious and familial connotations, and Chef, with professional & personal respect connotations.
2. The programming of these words necessitates a de-programming of these words, when you realize that these terms are for more complicated than whatever initial teacher you had implied. Welcome to the great big world where Love is a dirty pile of rags, and not everybody is a Chef.
3. Both can be used easily to save a lot of goddamn time.
4. Both can be frustrating to hear when used out of context.
5. When it comes down to it, anyone who tells you “you HAVE to love that person,” or “you HAVE to call that person Chef,” is wrong. Sometimes you don’t call that person chef, and sometimes you don’t love that person.
6. The overuse of either makes one sound like a pernicious suck-up.
Culinary school made it very easy to call authority figures “Chef”. The person with the huge hat telling you what to do was “Chef.” If you called them Chef at the end of every sentence, they wouldn’t make fun of you (to your face, at least.) If you screamed out, “WHY HELLO, CHEF!” in the hallway, they’d either appreciate it, or swallow it with the grain of salty prepubescence.
“They’ll get it someday. Their body is undergoing changes and they just got their first case of acne. Be nice.”
We learned about the traditional French brigade system in school. This is supposed to clear some stuff up.
“Now, you can be the ‘chef’ OF a station, but you’re not the THE chef. You can also be the chef in charge of the other chefs, but there might also be a chef in charge of you, and they might be THE chef. Or perhaps not. It all depends.”
My first time staging at a large, more traditional restaurant, I had no idea who all to call chef. The head chef made it pretty obvious that he was in charge, but the hierarchy beneath him just looked like a big swamp for the first few hours. I was introduced to just about every person in the kitchen, but no one’s titles were announced. Since I was staging, pretty much everyone was telling me what to do, and therefore everyone was an authority figure. I decided to call people just by their first names for the first few hours (which somehow I remembered), but then I started to feel like I was doing something wrong.
I then reversed my tactic and started calling every frickin’ person Chef. I think I even bonked into the prep table at one point and said “sorry, Chef” to the prep table.
What a mess.
Walking into a kitchen is like walking into a clock. It’s ticking away, and everyone is interacting with each other how they will, and then THERE YOU ARE! Suddenly! Trying to get into the tick-zone as quickly as possible. I’ve found myself hoping that someone just tells me to pick up my knife and says “chop this for hours,” so at least I have something productive to do, instead of standing around like a ding-dong.
At this place I was first staging, I had to somehow find a way to be a part of the organism, but also observe the organism so I could stop calling every frickin’ person Chef. I think I was starting to weird people out.
I sat in my corner, chopping herbs, and spying on whatever hierarchy I could watch. “Ok, people seem to be submitting to this guy ‘Steve.’ He puts on his sweatshirt, and spends a long time in the walk-in with the head chef. He must be the ‘sous-chef.’ I should probably call him Chef. People seem to be paying a lot of attention to ‘Brenda,’ but she doesn’t really seem to be in charge of anything, she must just be competent. I will not call her ‘Chef’.”
But, now, to briefly touch on my anxieties over the word Love…
I grew up in a religious family. We went to church every Sunday. At this church every Sunday, at some point we would be told that as Christians, we are called upon to “love every person, no matter what, as Christ loves us.” I would nod and say, “Ok, got it. Can I go be less bored now.” And I would leave, with this blank feeling on my heart, that I would hope was love that I could ejaculate onto the world, no matter what, just as Christ ejaculated love onto us.
What did this love mean? Just be generally nice? Bring homeless people into my parent’s house for the night? Don’t be racist? Have a crush on everyone? Every week I was given Love as the answer, and the answer rarely answered any questions.
I continued to be religious throughout high school, and I started to seek out more mystical expressions of my faith. I remember being on a retreat with a lot of my cool Christian friends, and it was my first time I felt that I truly experienced the “presence of God.” We spent hours upon hours playing music, singing along, and dancing. After a few hours of this, I remember feeling my mind elevated to a brand new place. I felt warm, excited, and my eyes were opened to a brand new world. I looked around the room, and inexplicably felt this warmness and excitement come out of me and onto the other people in the room.
“These are my people! I love them!”
It never made more sense to me as it did in this moment, and retelling this story now, it doesn’t really make sense to me. I only really feel that experience through vocabulary right now, and the memory that “it really felt like something.”
I wanted to tell everyone that I truly loved them, because that felt like the true and honest thing to say at the time.
I remember being in my early 20’s, sitting in a car with a brand-new boyfriend. I rather liked him, but my feelings were still rather tangled, and not on solid ground yet. He kissed me good night, and said “I love you.” Judging from what I saw his face do next, my face must have done something crazy in reaction to it.
My mind was blank. I had nothing to say back.
“I’m sorry!” He said. “It just came out. But it’s true. I just had to say it.”
I wished he had just called me “coach.” Being called “Chef” was a lot of pressure.
A few months ago, I started working at these once a month pop-up dinners here in Portland. Every month there is a new chef putting together a menu to feed about 70 people in an obscure and nifty location. My first dinner was with a rather impressive chef, who had a very complicated menu and intricate plating. I felt that it was way over my head. I spent a day prepping with this guy before the dinner.
“I’m Pete.” He said.
“Hi Pete.” I responded. “I’m Theresa.”
He was a sweet lamb I could talk with casually, though his credentials and abilities were so far above my own. He didn’t make me feel intimidated. We stood next to each other by the stove, him making a chicken gumbo, and me lacquering and searing duck breasts. We chatted about food, about molecular gastronomy, and how he’d mess with his “cooks” when they pissed him off at the restaurant by asking them to totally deconstruct and reconstruct a tomato using a series of mad science. It was a pretty fun time. At the end of the prep day, I said “Bye Pete.”
The next night was the dinner. I showed up to the warehouse where we were serving, and stress was palpable. Despite this, Pete was trying to keep his cool. He designed all aspects of the menu, and there was no other Chef to hide behind. Even if some schmuck like me screwed something up, in the end his name was attached to all mistakes. I could see him quietly freaking out inside, but still he tried to be nice to everyone. My personal theory for his attitude is he must have worked with enough angry chefs and decided he didn’t want to be “that guy.” He didn’t want people to spend their time working for him being miserable – he wanted it to be fun. And hey, what boss, chef, coach, etc., would want their grundlings to be completely miserable?
(Perhaps for him, and also for me, the use of the word “chef” denoted a generational difference. We are the next generation of food producers, and we have a different set of rules. He wasn’t an old man who required people to call him “chef.” He wouldn’t force “chef” on us. Chef was a verb, not a pronoun, for him. The word didn’t need to be spoken for it to be present..perhaps.)
Before the dinner, we had a back of house line-up.
“Guys, I want this to be fun.” Pete said, further solidifying my theory. “I’m pro high-five. We can high-five! And you don’t need to call me Chef. I don’t care.”
Well, okay, great, I thought. I’ve been calling him Pete this entire time.
“All I care about is call-backs. But you can say whatever you want. ‘Heard’ is great.'”
Ah yes, the great call-back of the egalitarian kitchen. “Heard.”
We started plating the dinner. Seven courses, all with at least 10 components that if not plated precisely, ended up looking like piles of garbage on the plate. We were working in a make-shift restaurant inside of a warehouse, with limited ingredients. There were no back-ups, no person running prep in the back. Any mistake that was made resonated loudly. Things got pretty tense. Communication shortened considerably. Pete was getting stressed, and I liked the guy a lot and didn’t want to let him down. I did. My heart fell when he watched me plate up a sauce and said, “Please avoid doing that.”
Please avoid doing that. That crushed my spirit more than if he had said, “What incompetent asshole would plate up sauce like POOP? YOU! You pooped on the plate!!”
I was getting nervous. I was getting paid no matter what, and my name wasn’t the one attached to the dinner, but I wanted to be valuable. I wanted to do the right thing. I was trying to cling to everything Pete said to make sure I was plating correctly. And then it slipped out of me:
I didn’t know why I chose to say it then. I was stressed, and I needed to answer him. And maybe rather importantly, I really wanted to call him chef. I sort of needed it. It danced around on the tip of my tongue, until it burst out into the ether. It felt good. It felt right. I called him Chef for the rest of the dinner, and felt a huge relief.
At the end of the night, he shook my hand, his other hand clutching a beer, and said “Thanks for all the help, Theresa.”
“You’re welcome, Pete.”